SITTING in the stands at the Aviva Stadium in 2017 as Cork City triumphed over UCD Waves in a FAI Cup decider, Maria O’Sullivan had a dream of one day representing the Leesiders in the showpiece event of the domestic women’s soccer calendar.
Little did she know that, within the space of three years, this vision would become reality.
On top of everything else, the Ballincollig native, at the tender age of 19, is the one tasked with leading Rónán Collins’ side into battle against the double-chasing Peamount United at Tallaght Stadium this Saturday.
“I was 16 at the time [of the 2017 final] and we actually went up with the Academy. Rónán at the time was head of the Academy and he brought us up and a few others. We watched the game and I remember thinking ‘gosh, I’d like to be there someday’.
"I didn’t think it would come that soon, to be honest,” O’Sullivan explained in a video call on Tuesday.
“Let alone the fact that I’m captain as well. That kind of adds an icing to the cake.
"I just remember sitting there and watching, saying how this is where I want to be in a couple of years’ time.”
A daunting prospect at first, O’Sullivan had eventually grown into the role of team leader. As two of just four survivors from the 2017 Cup win - Danielle Burke and Christina Dring being the others - Ciara McNamara and Saoirse Ronan helped to put the underage international shot-stopper at ease.
“I was kind of shocked when I got the call to be captain. It was new to me, but I think I had a natural leader role in me and especially being a goalkeeper too. You kind of have to have that in you, regardless.
"A lot of things I did, I had already done before being named captain.
“A good few things did come naturally to me, but then obviously I did have to learn a few things and to be fair the players helping me along the way.
"They were very good in helping me into that role.”
While there is no telling what the future holds, Saturday’s game will be O’Sullivan’s last as a Cork City for the time being. In early January of next year, she set to begin a soccer scholarship at Fordham University in New York.
She was originally due to make this Stateside move in August before visa and Covid complications affected her plans and now O’Sullivan is hoping for a perfect swansong in south Dublin this weekend.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better send-off. I was fearful that I mightn’t get a season before I went over, but I’m really happy the way it turned out.
When O’Sullivan first joined Cork City, Amanda Budden and Eve Badana were engaged in a fierce battle for the number one spot in the team.
Their quest for excellence quickly rubbed off on O’Sullivan, who is now doing her utmost to be a guiding light for young hopefuls Abby McCarthy and Leah Hayes Coen.
“They definitely pushed me to be a better keeper. When they left, I had to take over the role of pushing the two younger ‘keepers behind me. Abby and Leah, who are both going to be really, really good ‘keepers in a couple of years. I think the standard of goalkeeping, particularly in Cork, has been just improving every year. You can see it with all the different ‘keepers coming through.”
Despite acknowledging it’s a shame this year’s final isn’t taking place at the Aviva Stadium - where it has been held since 2013 - O’Sullivan says that playing in Tallaght comes as a good consolation.
It is after all the home for Ireland’s senior matches and it is her stated ambition to become a full international at some point in the near future.
“That is the goal, to be on the senior Irish team. It is still great that we get to play there and we are playing in the stadium where the women’s national team are playing.
"That is great, that we do get to play there, despite it not being in the Aviva,” O’Sullivan added.