NAKITA BURKE HAD HIT the same shot countless times before, but on the afternoon of October 3 2010 it was executed to perfection.
Time momentarily stood still when a cushioned header from Eimear McClafferty fell at Burke’s feet.
She was facing away from goal at the Leck end of the ground at the time, but in one flawless swivel, Burke took control, glanced up and sent a dipping shot over the head of Eureka Kells goalkeeper, Louise Byrne.
The gap between the fingertips of Byrne and the crossbar was minimal, but Burke’s effort was struck with such precision it wouldn’t have been out of place on one of the screens at the nearby Century Cinemas.
“The best goal and the best game of my career,” Burke says now, five-and-a-half years on from the day Lagan Harps first became queens, a 1-0 WFAI Intermediate Cup final win over Eureka Kells.
Picture caption: Lagan Harps celebrate their 2010 WFAI Intermediate Cup final win against Eureka Kells.
“The ‘keeper was off the line so I just thought: ‘I’ll try this’. It was the best chance I had in the game. Thank God it went in.”
This Sunday, Lagan face Castlebar Celtic in the WFAI Under-18 Cup final at McSharry Park in Sligo.
Twice previously, Lagan won national competitions.
That Intermediate triumph of 2010 was followed by the WFAI Junior Cup in 2014 and Burke was one of only two players to start both games, scoring twice in the 8-1 win over Tipperary Town two years ago.
Time hasn’t dimmed the memories for the striker.
“We got a goal and just defended it for the rest of the game,” she says of that October afternoon in 2010.
“Eureka Kells were a very strong team. We scored and just held out for the win.”
It felt as long a game as the participants have ever endured.
Lagan were under the cosh after Burke’s goal, but a combination of brave defending from Emma Duffy and heroic goalkeeping by Denise McElhinney kept the sheet clean.
“The hard work stood to us,” Burke says.
“We had so much confidence in Denise, too. Everyone just played out of their skins that day. People were dropping left, right and centre with cramp.
“That final was in October, but we had done so much months beforehand.
“We did a huge pre-season and even in the middle of the summer we were still doing drills and were flat out running.
“We were in the Aura early in that season and were doing spinning. We’d been knocked out the previous year and Bríd said we could win it with a bit of effort. We were just buzzing the whole way through 2010.”
Castlebar Celtic, the opponents for Lagan’s Under-18s this Sunday, had given Lagan a real scare in a quarter-final at Orchard Park in Manor.
Burke, twice, and Aisling McBride had Lagan 3-0 up with just over 20 minutes remaining but, remarkably, Castlebar battled back, aided by Fanad native Marzella Sweeney, to level the tie.
With the clock in its dying moments, Burke was fouled 30 yards from goal and what happens next remains one of their abiding memories of the Cup run. Emma Duffy stepped up and sailed a wonderful free-kick straight to the top corner.
“We knew then that we could win it,” Burke says. “Without Emma’s goal we would have been beaten.
“We were so close to being beaten, but when Emma scored it was like: ‘Jesus, let’s go win this Cup’. That game was a huge win for us.”
With Burke and Bernie Cunningham each getting a brace and McBride and Amy Thompson also on the mark, Lagan swatted Douglas Hall aside, 6-1, in the semi-final.
Just one hurdle was left.
The ‘Eureka’ moment arrived 16 minutes into the final with Burke’s goal that sent the big home crowd wild.
It was a day to savour.
From those watching who’d endured the agony of following their team all the way around the rollercoaster, to Bríd McGinty whose work had finally paid off and delivered a national title.
Or there was Alice Diver, who came off the bench in the closing stages on her 16th birthday.
“We knew we had a strong squad with players coming in and out every week.,” Burke says.
“The underage in the club was so strong, we had so many players coming through and they were pushing the rest of us so hard in training.
“You needed that because the Donegal Women’s League was so strong and the likes of Kilmacrennan Celtic and Finn Valley always having good team.”
There were little nuggets all around Leckview on what remains Lagan’s greatest hour.
“People from everywhere came out to support us,” Burke says. “It was the biggest crowd we’d ever played in front of. We celebrated it well!”
Lagan Harps (2010 WFAI Intermediate Cup final v Eureka Kells): Denise McElhinney; Diane Toner, Sonia Moore, Emma Duffy, Annette Pearson, Mairead McGinty (Alice Diver), Amy Thompson (Emma McKinley), Nakita Burke, Eimear McClafferty, Aisling McBride, Bernie Cunningham. Unused subs: Catherine Fletcher, Julie McCloy, Fiona McCool.
Lagan Harps celebrate their win in the 2010 WFAI Junior Cup final
Four years on, Lagan were celebrating again, as they went to Cooke Park in Tipperary to defeat Tipperary Town 8-1 in the WFAI Junior Cup final.
“There was a huge turnover in players,” Burke recalls.
Burke was a survivor from the starting XI against Eureka Kells. Bernie Cunningham was now Bernie Cannon and was also included while Emma McKinley was elevated to the starting line-up having been a sub in 2010.
“Bonagee United has started up the ladies team again so some of the girls went there; others just didn’t come back to us, but we had such a good crop of young players.
“We lost experience, but we had in the likes of Nadine (Crawford) and (Lauren) Harper. That was refreshing. They were just full of football and full of enthusiasm.
“With those players in training, you knew you’d have to try a little bit harder.”Lagan were the big favourites, but they were rocked in the 12th minute when Stephanie Walsh teed up Jade Looby, whose angled shot was too much for Niamh Mailey, the Lagan goalkeeper.
“D’ya know what, we were nervous at the start of that one,” Burke says.
“We were playing a sort of 4-5-1 formation and we were shaky that day at the start.
“We conceded early and it was probably a good thing in a strange way. It got our heads focussed. We knew we were strong enough to win the game and we had the work done.
“We didn’t panic at all when we conceded.”
Two minutes after falling behind, Amber Barrett levelled and goals from Harper Burke and McKinley had Lagan 4-1 up by the half-hour.
Caroline Gallagher had succeeded Burke as the team’s captain and the Buncrana native made it 5-1 with a cracking header before Barrett, Harper and Burke added their second goals to seal an 8-1 win.
Lagan Harps (2014 WFAI Junior Cup final v Tipperary Town): Niamh Mailey, Saorla McGarrigle, Nadine Crawford, Emma Duffy, Kaneshia McKinley (Michelle Kelly), Caroline Gallagher, Lauren Harper (Catherine Fletcher), Nikita Burke, Emma McKinley (Eimear McClafferty), Amber Barrett, Bernie Cannon. Unused subs: Erin Coll, Meghan Reid, Sadhbha Medlar.Tags: