Denise O'Sullivan: Envy of England joy just deepens Ireland resolve

Amid all those celebratory scenes England deservedly lavished in and the moments of joy savoured by other teams, my abiding emotion of watching the Euros from afar is one of envy
Denise O'Sullivan: Envy of England joy just deepens Ireland resolve

ENVY: Denise's former Houston teammate Rachel Daly on stage during a fan celebration to commemorate England's historic UEFA Women's EURO 2022 triumph in Trafalgar Square, London. Pic: James Manning/PA Wire 

Amid all those celebratory scenes England deservedly lavished in and the moments of joy savoured by other teams, my abiding emotion of watching the Euros from afar is one of envy.

I’m a football fan – don’t get me wrong – and a spectacle of that magnitude will have far-reaching benefits for a women’s sector that was starved of profile when I began making my way up the career ladder. I was particularly delighted for Rachel Daly, who I was at Houston Dash with.

Records were smashed. Be it the attendances, viewing figures, social media interaction, or the quality of football across the board, Euro 2022 will leave a legacy like none of its predecessor tournaments.

Who will ever forget that picture at Wembley of Chloe Kelly wheeling away, chased by her jubilant teammates, with 87,000 delirious fans screaming in unison?

This was football at its best, not just women’s football.

It reverberated around the globe. England’s October friendly against the USA selling out within 24 hours proved the fervour wasn’t trapped in a summer capsule.

But nothing beats being involved. Being a bystander is a distant second.

I consider myself fortunate to have played, and continue to play, alongside world-class teammates and have enjoyed success at club level in various countries. The accolades picked up along the way, both individually and collectively, are cherished.

Internationally, my career hasn’t hit similar heights I’d have wanted.

Wearing that Ireland jersey generates a pride like no other and I’ve enjoyed every minute of my 94 caps, yet to represent your country at a major tournament is the pinnacle. It’s been a story of near-misses.

Even at underage level, we went to the brink of qualification and got to Euro U19 finals the year after I’d gone overage with a squad including Katie McCabe and Megan Connolly.

It’s a gap on my CV I’m determined to put right.

The only consolation from observing 16 other squads having the time of their lives is the opportunity within our control to ensure Ireland don’t have to endure the anguish of missing out on another party. These last few weeks hurt, if I’m totally honest, fuelling our motivation.

Fifa’s latest rankings reflects our progress, climbing to 26th in the world. That’s within Europe's top 16 but we weren’t amongst that elite at the Euros.

I don’t want to feel detached from the action by seeing it unfold on a television screen. There’s been too much of it and the pain sinks deeper and lingers longer the bigger the showpieces become.

If that outpouring sounds like my heart overruling my head, then you’d be mistaken. I know we belong on the big stage and the evidence of the past year has convinced me more than ever. That conviction is steeped in logic rather than emotion.

I’m no different to the other girls in that any takeaway from the Euros was viewed from an Irish perspective.

There were chats through the WhatsApp group of what we each gleaned and mine was certainly based on how we compare. Everybody was aware of Northern Ireland’s fairytale journey to the finals but there were other teams we can take inspiration from.

Austria, for me, were the standout template.

Nobody gave them a hope of progressing from England’s group but they soon became the dark horses. From the opening game when they held the hosts to a narrow win, their organisation and discipline was a joy to watch.

They operated off a solid base, remained defensively resolute and transitioned into attack with a fluency illustrating what can be achieved by cohesion.

It was redolent of the team Ireland have developed into. While shape and workrate had been our hallmarks, using that as a springboard to diversify further up the pitch is the aspect we’ve added. We’re not dependent on one area for the source of goals.

Since Sweden beat us by an own-goal in Tallaght just under a year ago, we’ve scored in all five of our subsequent World Cup qualifiers. That includes goals in the win over Finland and draw against Sweden – both away from home.

Which of course brings us onto the upcoming Finland rematch. For obvious reasons, they were the team our eyes were trained on at the tournament. Their group of death made for an early exit and the coach soon followed, but none of that will breed complacency on our part. 

Linda Sällström showed with her early goal against Spain the threat she poses up top and, regardless of them having an interim coach, I fully expect Finland to be in their prime on September 1.

They’ll be rearing to go, eager to avenge our win in Helsinki and aware they need at least a draw for the play-off destiny to hinge on our final game in Slovakia five days later.

We’re less than three weeks away and I’ve my travel booked, flying straight from Kansas after we face them on Sunday fortnight.

There’s really no place like home, especially when the country is urging an Ireland team to fly the flag at a major tournament.

Caldwell adds passion to Reading cause

It was brilliant to see my former teammate Diane Caldwell hook up with Reading for the new Women’s Super League campaign.

In the six-and-a-half years I’ve spent Stateside, Diane is the only compatriot I’ve played alongside. Watching Heather Payne line out for Florida at our stadium in an NCCA fixture was the closest I got to hearing another Irish accent.

Diane came back to America in 2021 to join us at North Carolina Courage and left a wonderful imprint from the year she spent.

She’s undoubtedly the most passionate player I’ve encountered in the game. Her competitive traits are ideal for a centre-back and the fact Manchester United was her next stop demonstrated the reputation she’s garnered.

We also became good friends when she moved over. I’d like to think I helped her settle in, which was smoothed by our shared love for coffee!

That makes it two of my friends at Reading now. Together with goalkeeper Grace Moloney, it gives them a defensive backbone for the season.

Time for Courage to climb table

We’re in the unusual situation of propping up the table but hopefully I can help North Carolina Courage get out of this situation.

Winning back-to-back national titles in 2018 and 2019 set us to potentially dominate but football rarely works like that. There was the Covid-19 interruption, the upheaval of last year and the reality of us working with new staff and a much-changed squad.

Our last three games have ended in draws and we’ve got four games in hand on most of our rivals near the bottom, so it’s just a case of converting those into victories.

Covid caused some postponements again and there were international breaks over the summer. Our Brazilian players won the Copa América Femenina, a tournament that doubles up for World Cup qualification, but Debinha still had time to retweet news of our game against Finland being sold-out. 

I swear that it wasn’t my idea – for such an icon of the game, she’s just a down-to-earth person who constantly looks out for her clubmates.

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