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'This was always the plan' - Kilduff savours cup glory

Ciaran Kilduff won it all as a League of Ireland player with Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk and Shelbourne, but Sunday's Sports Direct FAI Women's Cup triumph felt different.

The 35-year-old succeeded Tommy Hewitt at Athlone Town last June when morale was low.

A brilliant 2022 campaign was followed by a talent drain in the winter, with other clubs picking off some of Athlone's brightest stars. They'd finished second in the league and lost the cup final to Shels; it felt like they'd been a victim of their own success.

But Kilduff galvanised the group, bringing in some fresh faces and setting the squad a clear target: win the FAI Cup. That mission was accomplished thanks to a thrilling penalty shootout win over Shels.

"I came in, we got Ken Kiernan [who had been coaching at Shels], two new goalkeepers and loads of new players," Kilduff reflected.

"It felt like the six-week break because of the World Cup allowed us to have a mini pre-season and allowed me to find my feet.

"The club backed me and has given me everything I wanted. I will admit, I have worked hard and it was for today. This was always the plan. When I took over we were in seventh position in the league - the league was never going to be won. The cup was the only thing we could salvage this season.

"We didn't have it easy. We beat Peamount who won the league, we beat Shelbourne who finished second and beat Galway United who are All-Island champions along the route and Sligo to boot. We did it the hard way but we earned it. The hard work paid off."

Kilduff has a mantelpiece full of medals from his playing days but he insisted Athlone's triumph at Tallaght Stadium has given him a level of satisfaction impossible to achieve unless you're leading a group.

"Ah no, this is