Cork players at heart of Irish soccer's move from protests to historic playoff

Ireland are in touching distance of a first appearance at the World Cup
Cork players at heart of Irish soccer's move from protests to historic playoff

Corkonian and Irish star Megan Connolly. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

FIVE years ago at Liberty Hall in Dublin, the Republic of Ireland Women’s team threatened to strike. They claimed they were treated like ‘fifth-class citizens’.

It was just before an international friendly against Slovakia that they made their stand, and they highlighted a host of issues, including having to get changed in airport bathrooms.

Earlier this month, they played Slovakia knowing they had already secured a World Cup play-off spot, something they had never achieved before.

It was an emotionally charged, 1-0 victory over Finland that qualified Ireland for the next phase of the tournament, in front of a record crowd of 6,952 people at Tallaght Stadium.

The girls buried their past and burst forward into a new era.

Cork has had a central role in the success of the women’s national team.

In 2017, Claire Shine stood with the squad at Liberty Hall and this led to nine hours of talks that culminated in a €100,000 deal between the players and the FAI.

The impact was immediate. They won back-to-back World Cup qualifiers that autumn and the Netherlands were held to a 0-0 draw in Nijmegen. Ireland finished that campaign in third place and they missed out on a play-off spot by six points.

Ireland carried that form into their Euro 2022 qualifying campaign and missed out on a play-off spot by two points. Vera Pauw’s team broke their glass ceiling by qualifying for the play-offs for the 2023 World Cup.

Cork players Denise O’Sullivan, Megan Connolly, and Saoirse Noonan have been crucial to Ireland’s breakthrough.

Their stories epitomise the team’s fight to the top of the women’s game.

They all developed through the CWSSL before playing professional football with a number of top clubs.

O’Sullivan, from Knocknaheeny, began playing with Wilton United and she won the FAI Women’s U14 National Cup with them in 2008. The midfielder went from there to Peamount United and, in 2011, she joined Cork City WFC. O’Sullivan has now played professional football with a number of top teams, including Houston Dash, Western Sydney Wanderers, and North Carolina Courage.

Connolly once lined out with College Corinthians and she helped the team to win the Women’s Munster Senior Cup in 2014. The midfielder then moved to the US to play for Florida State University, followed by a transfer to Brighton and Hove Albion in the FA Women’s Super League.

Noonan toured the CWSSL and joined Cork City WFC in 2015. She played with the Rebel Army for five years and she won the FAI Women’s Cup with them in 2017. Noonan went to Shelbourne in 2021 and in January 2022, she signed for Durham in the FA Women’s Championship.

O’Sullivan and Connolly were responsible for Ireland’s 2-1 victory over Finland in Helsinki. Connolly gave her side the lead in the 10th minute with an inch-perfect free-kick and O’Sullivan bundled the ball in to cancel out Adelina Engman’s second-half equaliser.

When Georgia came to town that December, O’Sullivan bagged a hat-trick during an 11-0 win at Tallaght Stadium. That same night, Noonan came on and scored her first goal for the senior team.

Against Finland, when Ireland needed to win to secure qualification, O’Sullivan was Ireland’s engine and she controlled the flow of the game while covering the back-line.

Denise O'Sullivan during a Republic of Ireland Women training session in Slovakia last week. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Denise O'Sullivan during a Republic of Ireland Women training session in Slovakia last week. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The good work at the back paid off when Connolly whipped in that free-kick and Lily Agg headed in to give Ireland the lead.

Ireland sat back and defended deeply, forcing Finland to shoot from outside the box. Every effort was repelled by an organised defence that included Connolly.

The full-time whistle saw a release of emotion from the players, who were came together in a group huddle. They knew the scale of their achievement, and where they had come from.

O’Sullivan made sure to mention this when she spoke to the media at the full-time whistle.

“The team has come a long way from back in 2017 in Liberty Hall. All those girls — Emma Byrne, Yvonne Tracy, Aine O’Gorman — they came before us and they worked really hard. We did that tonight for them. It’s absolutely huge and we’re delighted,” she said.

Much of this success can be attributed to the changes brought in in the aftermath of the 2017 protests. Every step of the way, from Liberty Hall to Tallaght Stadium, has had a player from Cork doing their bit.

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