Denise O’Sullivan's journey from the streets of Knocknaheeny to being hailed as ‘one of the world's best’

An abiding love of football nurtured on the streets of Knocknaheeny now sees Denise O’Sullivan with the world at her feet. As Ireland take on Greece today in their continuing bid to make history by qualifying for Euro 2021, the acclaimed midfielder and self-described ‘home bird’ talks Liam Mackey through the highs and lows of how a globe-trotting career took flight

Denise O’Sullivan during a Republic of Ireland WNT portrait session at Johnstown House in Enfield, Meath. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Denise O’Sullivan during a Republic of Ireland WNT portrait session at Johnstown House in Enfield, Meath. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

YOU could say that Denise O’Sullivan is in a good place right now.

Fresh from being named the North Carolina Courage’s MVP for a second successive year, after helping the club to achieve back-to-back National Women’s Soccer League titles in the United States, she will don the green shirt for the 75th time in a Euro 2021 qualifier in Athens this afternoon as the Irish women’s senior team look to make it three wins on the spin in their quest to create history by qualifying for a major tournament for the first time.

And the Cork native does so on the back of a headline-grabbing pronouncement by Vera Pauw last week when the hugely experienced Ireland head coach hailed O’Sullivan as “one of the best players in the world,” adding, “there is no player in the world at this moment that is a playmaker but also the motor in winning the ball back. She has everything.”

Most fundamentally, of course, the 25-year-old has a deep love of the game which was nurtured on the streets around her childhood home in Knocknaheeny where, in a family of nine children, she first picked up the football bug from her older brothers, one of whom, John Paul, was capped at junior international level.

“I was definitely regarded as ‘the girl that plays football’,” she recalls. “Coming home from school, I’d have some food, get on my soccer boots and then my mam wouldn’t call me for hours. I’d be out there playing non-stop, just playing with the boys. Getting on the ball is my thing as a player and I think that started from a very young age. I always wanted to be on the ball in games and I’d scream until I had that ball.

“The girls in school? They didn’t mind at all. They knew I loved it and were very supportive. And it’s funny because I’d hardly ever hang out with them. I was always with the boys.”

After playing with a boys’ team, Nufarm Athletic, until she was 11, she moved to Wilton United girls’ team and then, as her star rose and word of her talent spread, progressed through her teens to playing for Cork and Peamount United – where she first experienced Champions League football – while her outstanding club form led to international recognition which, at underage level, peaked in a memorable 2010 when she helped Ireland reach the final of the U17 Euros (where they lost on penalties to Spain) and the quarter-finals of the U17 World Cup.

Yet, much as Denise loved playing football — and was, clearly, thriving at it — the idea that she would have to emigrate if she was to make a full-time career in the sport, was something she was initially reluctant to embrace.

“I was always a home bird, so, in the back of my mind, it was like, ‘I’m never really going to leave home - I’m a big family girl so I’m going to stay here and play football’,” she reflects.

“When I was about 17, Bristol got in touch and asked would I go over. So I went over with my mam and one of my sisters to have a look at the facilities. And they offered me a three-year scholarship to go to university. All great.

“But then I came back and, honestly, this is the truth, it was four in the morning and my dad was downstairs watching TV — he used to watch TV at all times — and I went down to him and I was, like, ‘I don’t want to go. I can’t leave. I’m too young. I want to be at home with my family.’ And so I decided I was going to stay at home at least for a few more years.

“And then about a year later Glasgow City got in touch, when I was 18, and that was the time I thought: ‘I’m ready to go now’. I may have matured a bit in that year but I felt I was ready to really kick on with my career at that point.”

But even then, she had taken a bit of persuading.

“The Glasgow City coach had been calling my house so many times and I’d be, like, ‘mam, you speak to him, I’m not here’. I kept putting it off but then I just decided to see how it would go because I really didn’t know what to expect going over there. But Glasgow City is a fantastic club and I really developed when I was there. And that’s when I knew: I’m going to take this very seriously.”

But, first, she had to cope with being away from her family and friends for the first time in her life.

“It was a challenge, yeah, I was homesick for a few months I would say. But the club were great. They knew by talking to my family that I was a big family girl so they really welcomed me with open arms and took care of me for the first couple of months until I’d settled in. I doubt my mam and dad wanted to let me go but they were really supportive, because they knew I loved the game so much. And in the end they really had no choice because they knew I wanted to try to make a career out of it. I think I really believed in myself then and knew I could go far if I put my head down and put the work in. And that’s what I did in Glasgow.” And she means off the pitch as well as on.

“Honestly, I couldn’t even cook when I went there,” she laughs. “And I struggled a bit because my mam was amazing, she used to cook for me all the time when I was at home. That was a big thing going over there: cooking my own meals and washing my own clothes. How do you turn on the washing machine? (Laughs) But I learned pretty quickly. I had to become independent and I think I did.”

Six years after she first took flight, O’Sullivan is now the most globe-trotting of the Irish players, dividing her club football between America and Australia. For the US close-season she has joined Sydney Wanderers on loan from the Courage, the second successive year in which she has moved Down Under to extend her competitive football season. The irony of circling the world to play her football is not lost on the one-time home bird.

“Yeah, it’s interesting. Because I just love travelling now, I love going places. I’m away from my family a lot. But, from being in America, I still get to see them quite a bit. That’s partly down to playing with the national team, coming into Dublin and getting to go home for a few days. But, yeah, I love travelling and see new places and things. Football has made me become more independent and mature. I’m well used to it now.”

Viewed from a distance, Denise O’Sullivan’s life in football – all the way from jumpers for goalposts in Knocknaheeny through a domestic treble and Champions League football with Glasgow City, to her current stellar success in the States and, to- date, 72 caps for her country - might look like a tale of seamless progression.

But, in reality, her second year in America saw her rocked by the first major setback in her football career, the kind of make or break experience which, though it certainly didn’t seem that way at the time, was to prove pivotal in taking her to the next level.

She had already suffered a profound personal loss, with the death of her father John, on the very eve of signing for Houston Dash from Glasgow Celtic in 2016.

“My dad had passed away only a few days before I’d signed for the Dash so it had been huge for me to be leaving at that time,” she recalls.

“It was a difficult period. But going over there I did have high hopes. It had been a dream of mine to go to America and play with top players.

“So I’m very thankful to Randy Waldrum, the coach who signed me.

“The first year actually went well, I was playing a lot and I enjoyed it. And then there was a change of coach. And that makes a big difference, especially if they like different players. So I got put on the bench and that was it really. I was only coming on for two or three minutes.

“It definitely wasn’t personality stuff. I was a hard-working player and I always turned up very positive for training. Even though I wasn’t getting game time I still turned up as a person who was there for her team mates and pushed them on, instead of being selfish and just thinking about yourself. I think it was just that the coach changed and he (Oscar Morales) obviously preferred another player ahead of me. And that’s fair enough, that happens in football. So I had to just take that on the chin and try to move on.

“But it definitely affected my confidence. I was coming back to the national team and I wasn’t game fit, I didn’t have that match sharpness. I remember playing against Scotland and thinking: ‘I’m not myself in this game at all’.

Denise O’Sullivan's journey from the streets of Knocknaheeny to being hailed as ‘one of the world's best’

“I had no confidence to get on the ball. I spoke to Dan Horan, the FAI’s strength and conditioning coach about it and he was, like, ‘you have to look after yourself, you need to go back and speak to them and try and leave’.

“But because I was new there and new to the league, I think I was kind of scared to go to them and say, ‘look, I’m not happy here’. I didn’t know what to expect. And I didn’t have an agent at the time. But I did have an offer from a German team, so I finally built up the courage to go to them and say, ‘look, I’m not playing games, I’m far from home and it’s affecting my happiness.’ “And they just said, ‘ok, we’ll let you go’. For free. No trade. Nothing. And that’s kind of weird in that league. Obviously they didn’t rate me very highly. They must have thought I was crap to let me go for free (laughs).”

But at no point, she insists, did she ever think of throwing in the towel and coming home.

“Never,” she says with a defiant tone. “I knew I was done with that team at that time but I also knew there was more out there for me. And more to come from me. So I went on the waiver list the next day and the way that works is you have to have a team come in for you within 24 hours. I was in Chicago at the time with my boyfriend and his family, sitting down having a coffee, when I got a call from (NC Courage manager) Paul Riley. He said, ‘we’re very interested in you and I promise you’ll get game time if you come down here’. And that night I got an email saying ‘you’re coming to North Carolina’.

“Because that’s the way the league works – when you’re on the waiver list, the league still have your rights. And three days later I was on a plane heading there. And I was happy. Germany wasn’t really in my mind – I was panicking I think and felt I needed something at that stage. But I really wanted to stay in the States.”

Understandably, she took a little while to settle into the new scene in North Carolina but, after a couple of months, she broke into a top class Courage team boasting an array of internationals — and hasn’t looked back since.

“What happened with the Dash was the biggest setback of my career but it’s just gone upwards from there,” she observes. “I think I’ve become better as a player and better as a person as well.”

Why better as a person?

“I think going from the Dash to Carolina has matured me. I had to get used to a new environment, meet new people. And I had to prove myself. I’m sure some people in the team were thinking, ‘why have we signed this girl who’s been on the bench?’ And I wouldn’t blame them. I’d got let go from a team that wasn’t really ranked very high in that league. But I knew I was better than that. So going to the Courage was a very big thing.”

Playing as a defensive midfielder for her club and as a number 10 for her country, O’Sullivan is now able to bring the best of both worlds to her game, which is what Vera Puaw was getting at when she talked about her as a complete midfielder.

But, as far as Denise is concerned, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

“I always wanted to get the best out of myself, every single time I went on the training field and every single time I went onto the pitch,” she says.

“So I knew there was a lot in me that could be really good. But I don’t think I’m done yet, I think there’s still a long way to go and I think I still have a lot of learning to do as a player. I’m not perfect on the pitch, by any means, I make mistakes like anyone else. So having Paul and Vera as coaches is a huge thing to me. They’re top coaches. And having these girls around me, with the Courage and with Ireland, they’ll keep pushing me on to be a top player.”

And there is still so much more for her to achieve in terms of honours, not least the goal of making 100 caps (at least) for her country. But the holy grail, of course, would be that breakthrough qualification with the girls in green for the Euro 2021 finals in England. – something which, if achieved, would surely rank as the single most important development in the history of the women’s game in Ireland.

“Absolutely, yeah,” she agrees. “Obviously, it’s never been done before by a senior team. It’s a dream of mine and everyone else in this team to get to a major tournament. That would be a huge stepping stone for women’s football in Ireland.

“I think at the moment, in our team, it’s the most players playing with top teams overseas we’ve ever had and I think that’s a huge benefit — people training with the best facilities and playing with some of the best players. I think it’s the fittest we’ve ever been too and, with Vera’s appointment now, I really think it’s the closest we’ve ever been to getting to a Euros. It won’t be easy, we know. We’ve had a pretty good start with two wins buts need to beat Greece now. They’re behind Ukraine in the seedings and we’ve already beaten Ukraine so I have confidence that we can go out there and beat Greece.

“And, yes, I definitely have the belief that we can qualify. It’s what we’ve worked for as players over the years. And to have those moments as a player is something you would treasure forever. If we do it, I think it would be a huge boost for Ireland in general and I think it would be fantastic for all the young girls watching because then they’ll have role models to look up to. It’s in England as well, so having our families coming over there to watch, yeah, it would be special for sure. I’ve achieved a lot of things with club and with the underage national teams too but it would be nothing compared to doing it at senior level.” Not that she would regard the longed-for qualification as any kind of end game in itself.

“Once you get there, the job isn’t done,” she points out. “If we get there, we’d be going there to compete and to win games.”

Spoken like another well-known Cork footballer.

“Who? Roy Keane?”

Who else?

She laughs.

“But it’s true. For sure.”

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