The Lost Clubs: Kildare County

15th November 2023

In the first edition of a new series, The Lost Clubs, we look back on the short history of Kildare County.  By Trevor Murray League of Ireland football has covered a lot of geographical ground since its inception. Some towns and districts have ha

In the first edition of a new series, The Lost Clubs, we look back on the short history of Kildare County. 

By Trevor Murray

League of Ireland football has covered a lot of geographical ground since its inception. Some towns and districts have had lasting relationships, while others have simply enjoyed short adventures.

Kildare County FC’s seven-year tenure in the league began in 2002 after junior club St Francis withdrew. In that time, the club managed to cultivate a passionate band of followers and, to this day, remnants of the die-hard fanbase continues to flicker with signs of life.

The club’s beginning in the league was a helter-skelter one. With only a few weeks to prepare for life amongst the elite of the domestic game, the team dubbed ‘The Thoroughbreds’ were burdened with an incredibly difficult task from the get-go.

Despite not having had time on their side, Stephen Finn was doing all the right things behind the scenes to oversee the establishment of the club. Finn was the General Manager, which meant that he had to juggle so much that he may have felt that he was an octopus at times.

A proud accomplishment from those early days saw the club get the Kildare Junior League and Kildare Schoolboy League on board – a trail-blazing move that saw the club patched together with a unique structure.

One of the first, and most important, things that Finn did was to appoint Dermot Keely, whom he describes as having been a ‘massive character’, as first-team manager not long after the experienced coach had departed Shelbourne. Fresh from guiding Shels to the Premier Division title, he provided Kildare with the type of experience that a newly-formed club could only dream of.

“I was a little bit cheeky. I said I wanted the biggest name and then we met Dermot. We were set on the idea of him managing the team. It wasn’t an interview as such, it was just a meeting to see how he felt about things. He had been the manager of Shels, he had been the most successful manager in the league, and I was inspired by Mick O’ Dwyer taking over the Kildare (GAA) team,” recalls Finn.

“I could see how people loved being associated with it and I think Dermot turned out to be a brilliant appointment in the sense that the crowds took to him. In the first season, the crowds were stable enough, averaging around 1,000, which for a club that had never played in the league before wasn’t a bad start.”

A bright start by Keely and the squad saw them take fifth place in the 2002-03 First Division campaign, leaving them two points outside the promotion/relegation play-off places. That instilled real hope that the newly-formed outsiders had the right stuff to not only be competitive but to challenge the established regulars.

However, following consecutive fifth-place finishes, the revered Keely had been lured north by Derry City.

“(Dermot) probably ended up doing too well. He nearly got us promoted, which would have really kicked us on to the next level and probably would have helped us get more sponsors, but then Derry City came in for him and he went up there which was too good of an opportunity to turn down,” says Finn.

“From the club’s perspective, it was very difficult to try and replace what was probably the most successful manager in the game at the time.”

Football supporters in Kildare have probably pondered the ‘What if?’ scenarios of a promotion during Keely’s tenure, but it never arrived. No doubt, the minnows were always going to have a tough time in keeping hold of Keely. Plus, having been used to winning silverware as a manager with the likes of Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk, Shelbourne and Home Farm Everton, he was, arguably, always going to move on if a bigger club came calling.

Keely’s appointment in the early days aside, it was the hard yards made up behind the scenes that showed how intent Finn was on transforming the club into a brand that the entire county could get behind during his stay there.

“The club had about six or eight weeks to prepare for the start of the season. In hindsight, it was too quick a turnaround. We tried to connect with the four corners of the county and if we had had the year to do that the way we wanted to, I’ve no doubt that we would have really established a strong set-up that might have had more longevity,” he said.

In 2004, The Thoroughbreds earned their highest league finish of fourth place, amassing their largest points tally in the second tier. Things were suddenly looking up.

Former player John Ryan, who was also incidentally the manager of the club for that record-setting 2004 season until he stepped down in ’08, was attracted by the ambition of what could be described as a start-up company.

Ryan was a league stalwart by the time he joined the club. Having clinched three FAI Cup winners’ medals (twice with Bray Wanderers and again with Dundalk just before his move to Kildare), he was undoubtedly Kildare’s marquee signing under then boss Keely. Indeed, his decision to join the club and help them find their feet in the big time saw him put his own retirement on ice.

“I believe I was actually the first signing for Dermot Keely,” says Ryan. “I had planned to retire. I was with Bray and I went on loan to Dundalk. I was finished with Dundalk and I said to myself, ‘right, that’s it my legs are gone, I have enough’ and then Dermo rang me and said, ‘Listen, I want to sign you as a senior pro to help the young lads – I won’t be playing you week in, week out but I’ll be playing you when I can’ so that was it.”

Ryan grew alongside the club, eventually getting the opportunity to become assistant manager alongside Eric Hannigan after Keely departed before becoming the man making the calls from the dugout. While his managerial career started out well, things eventually took a downward turn as results started to go against them on a more regular basis before the club folded in 2009 over a combination of negative results and financial struggles.

By that time, Tony Cousins, Thomas Donnelly and Joe Somerville had all tried to rescue the Thoroughbreds. Talented youngsters such as Ger O’Brien and Padraig Amond got to kick-start their league careers at Station Road, while the likes of Philip Byrne and Philip Gorman proved to be consistently excellent when lining out for the club.

The early promise of finishing as runners-up in the First Division Cup in 2003 and the club’s Under 21 side reaching the final of the Enda McGuill Cup ultimately counted for little. Once the results on the pitch coincided with falling attendances that was the beginning of the end. 

“We picked up a strong support base very quickly,” Ryan recalls of the club’s short existence.

“At the start we were getting really good gates, and it sort of dwindled and financially it became hard to survive, but at the start we were getting two or three thousand people, and there was a lot of excitement. It was something I had never experienced before. I was there from day one until I left when I resigned, probably due to results at the time, which was heart-breaking.”

Ryan makes a point of mentioning the key figures away from the limelight who made Kildare’s League of Ireland journey all possible, and his acknowledgement of them, as well as the passionate, core group of soccer fans in Kildare is echoed by Finn.

“It is a pity that the club isn’t still in existence just for the soccer people that are in Kildare,” Finn states. “In the county of Kildare, more people play soccer than Gaelic and rugby put together. The big thing about Kildare County to this day is that there are unbelievably good players there. There’s a huge amount of Kildare lads playing in the underage national leagues.

“You could pick a Kildare squad in the blink of an eye to play in the SSE Airtricity underage leagues – just from the players that are in and around the other clubs in the league. I’d love to see SSE Airtricity League football return to Kildare County someday, in whatever guise it takes, and I know that if the lessons from the first time around were learned, I think it would be a strong club.”


Don't forget to check out the latest episode of Greatest League In The World podcast, featuring Stephen Ward and Neale Fenn plus a debate on playmakers