Cork soccer and football star Saoirse Noonan's novel one-on-one coaching venture for kids starved of summer camps

The Cork LGFA and Cork City star has set up camp in a local park and business is booming.
Cork soccer and football star Saoirse Noonan's novel one-on-one coaching venture for kids starved of summer camps

Tramore Valley Park on a clammy Cork morning. Joggers pound it out, some of them looking closer to a state of runner’s zen than others.

All around, young dreams are being nurtured.

A few fathers keep goal on the string of pitches, toddlers’ shots trickling past extravagant dives. A young kicker is teeing them up and slotting them over as dad builds the next ROG.

My pair abandon a crossbar challenge to concentrate their energies on rolling down a grass bank.

And along comes Saoirse Noonan, chucks down her bag of balls and gear in a goalmouth, ready for another day at her new office.

It was two weeks ago, training with her own father right here, that she got the idea: one-on-one training for kids.

Every other summer she’d work the camps, LGFA, Cúl, FAI, or the ones run by her Cork teammate Orlagh Farmer.

But fearing a complete blackout this summer, she hatched a plan.

First stop was well-known graphic artist Jen Murphy, synonymous with top-drawer caricatures of ladies footballers and camogie players, and known to craft the occasional cover for Examiner Sport.

“Jen made me a brilliant poster. So I popped that up on my social media and it went around. Cork LGFA shared it, I got all my friends on board to share it. And it just took off.

“I was planning to start the following week, but I got so many messages and everyone wanted to start straight away. So I just borrowed a bit of gear off friends, a few extra cones. Got going on the Saturday, had four or five sessions, had another four or five on Monday.

“Then Balon Sportswear — I’m an ambassador for them — sent me loads of cones, hurdles and ladders. And I was up and running. I was booked out for the full week and I’m booked out now until next Wednesday. It’s absolutely crazy.”

Of course Noonan, as her poster advertises, has a unique product offering. A senior Cork ladies football star, as well as Cork City soccer player who has played for Ireland up to U19 level, she’ll happily coach soccer or Gaelic, or both if that’s what your child wants.

“The majority are girls, doing GAA, that’s been the big uptake. There’s been eight or nine boys, all soccer. I don’t mind the variation. Some of the girls want to do both.

“The ages typically run from nine to 15. There’s a nice variety. I’ve girls who play U14 football with Cork now, they’re coming down for a bit of fitness, running and stuff. This evening, I’ve two boys for soccer, six and eight. The parents drop them off and go for a walk, go for a run. But it’s fine if they want to sit and watch too.

“I have people coming up from Skibbereen, Mallow, it’s fantastic with the restrictions lifted, being able to travel more.

“It’s kind of like an ideal job. I would have never looked at myself as a coach. But the more I’m getting into it I’m enjoying it. It is tough, organising sessions and changing it up. Especially for the younger kids, they get bored easily. But I'm starting to find my feet.

“I think everyone that has come out has come back for at least one more session. Some have booked in for four sessions. That’s a good sign I suppose. So flying it.”

She’ll do one-on-one or take small groups up to four. With social distancing and all other Covid-related boxes safely ticked.

“I might go a little bigger over the next few weeks when the GAA pitches are available.

“I do an hour per session. Four or five a day. Five is tiring. You’re out here for six and a half hours, with a little break in between each one. And you’re constantly going, trying to keep the kids enthusiastic. But I enjoy being out here with the girls.”

She’s not aware of any other high-profile player doing anything similar.

“That’s kind of why I took it up. I’ve never seen it for GAA. I see senior players doing one-week camps but not one-on-one. It’s probably why it’s taken off so well, there’s not a lot of competition in the GAA.

“The girls coming from Mallow; their dad says, back in his day, if he got the opportunity to train with a Cork footballer or Cork City player, he’d have been delighted.

“I’d know some of the girls from summer camps. It’s nice that they’re kind of nervous and do look up to you a bit, so it inspires me to keep going with it. It’s fantastic.”

And she’s not exactly gouging on the price, considering the cost of swimming lessons and music lessons and all sorts these days.

“Starting off, it’s €15 per child and €10 for the second child. So I think it’s fairly reasonable. And I’m Garda vetted and have an FAI National D coaching licence.”

Between the demands of football and soccer and her CIT marketing course, Noonan has rarely had space to take stock. Before today’s block of sessions, she began her own fitness regime at 8am.

But lockdown has given her a window to reassess where her own young dreams are going.

“First eight weeks of quarantine, I just focussed on myself. I had no place to be, nobody to work for, just myself.

“All along, I’ve been trying to balance myself between coaches, trying to give 100% in every session. And I haven't sat back and looked at myself and what I can work on.

“A big thing for me has been my fitness, trying to get up to the top level. I worked really hard on that for the first eight weeks and I felt incredibly fit.

“Cork City and Cork GAA have been giving us incredible programmes. Three or four hours a week in the gym, and running. Nothing too hard, simple stuff, but tough. Then I gave myself two weeks off and I’m only back training hard two weeks and I’m feeling the benefit.

“My goal is to get as fit and as healthy and strong as I can and stay injury-free. And if things start going in September, I might be able to really perform.”

Not yet 21, one weekend last July showcased again both her talent and dilemma — 1-2 for Cork in the championship win against Cavan on Saturday, a brace in City’s National League win over Kilkenny on Sunday.

And as her flyers suggest, it’s still impossible to give one sport top billing.

“Not right now. It’s hard to tell. I kind of play it by ear, kind of go with the flow.

“If we’re doing well in GAA, the aim is to win in Croke Park, to win the All-Ireland. And then with Cork City, you always have your eye on the Ireland senior team, which has always been a dream of mine.”

In 2018, Cork manager Ephie Fitzgerald said she has the talent to become the face of ladies football for the next 10 years.

A cruciate injury hindered her progress since her Ireland U19 days but she has been regularly called to FAI get-togethers for National League players.

“It is difficult when you're doing GAA and you want both, but you don’t know where you stand. It’s difficult, but I’ll never say never to that (playing for Ireland).

“I’ve been at the home-based training sessions and I thought I had my foot in the door. But it’s a bittersweet feeling really. If you get into the Irish senior team, you can’t play GAA. You wouldn't be able to really.

“At the moment, Cork City and Cork GAA are phenomenal. Without the managers at the moment, I wouldn't be able to balance them both. They really look after my load. Even though I’m at all the training sessions, they won’t push me that hard.

“They'll let me play a game the day before, which is really important to me. And that gives me another push to do well because they are willing to let me do that.

“Everyone is amazing and understanding, all the girls. They can’t play with their clubs (before county matches) and they see me going playing soccer.”

You wonder would it crystallize things, if the pathway to a professional soccer career was as clear and lucrative as it is for men. Noonan even went Down Under to explore an Aussie Rules career at the end of last year, though admits she’d find it hard to live so far from home.

And last year she spent a period at Women’s Super League club Bristol City.

“It’s hard to know, maybe. I was over at Bristol last year, and you see how hard the girls train. But then you see what the boys get in comparison. Most of the Bristol girls would have been working jobs as well.

“And then you come back here and we’re almost professional anyway, with the GAA.

“But it would still be a hard choice. Because I love both.”

Her first class of the day arrives. Four girls taking first steps on the Gaelic football pathway. But Noonan doesn’t see any need to put young dreams in a box.

“I get girls saying to me all the time, ‘oh I’ve been picked for the Cork U15s, I’ve to give up soccer’. But I say to parents, let them play what they want for as long as possible.

“I played basketball as well for as long as I could and I don’t think any of it has done me any harm.”

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