IF the next phase for women’s football in Ireland was qualification to a major tournament, then it was Denise O’Sullivan who helped make that possible.
The midfielder from Knocknaheeny was a key figure in the team that ended decades of hurt by making sure the country will be represented at the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
Not only did she set up Amber Barret to score the winner in the play-off against Scotland, but O’Sullivan also knocked in the decisive goal in Finland that swung momentum Ireland’s way in the group.
In a way, qualification is O’Sullivan’s magnum opus, and it will allow her to fully take her place as one of the great players in women’s football.
The global arena is the most suitable venue for the ultimate triple threat; a player who can pass the ball as well as scoring and tackling.
She already achieved some global recognition in 2019 by getting named as the 65th best female footballer in the world by The Guardian back in 2019.
But to fully understand O’Sullivan, and the player set for a landmark 2023, is to understand her roots and her background on the northside of Cork city.
The midfielder was born in 1994 and the first nine years of her life were dominated by talk of another northsider: Roy Keane. The Manchester United captain was at the peak of his powers when O’Sullivan first tuned in, and she saw him help the club win a historic treble in 1999 alongside numerous Premier League titles.
Keane was a generational talent and a person who remained close to his family in Mayfield and his boyhood club, Rockmount.
He was the perfect role model for the player O’Sullivan would become; a hard tackling central midfielder with an eye for a pass or goal.
She never hides her support for United, and how Keane was her role model all those years ago.
Just a fantastic player, and a bit mental, too. He literally grew up 10 minutes from me, in Mayfield.
"The fact he had come from the same area, it made me want to work harder and chase my dreams,” O’Sullivan wrote in a blog post in 2019.
Whether intentional or not, Keane’s football journey was the template that O’Sullivan would follow. He went from Rockmount to Cobh Ramblers, then Nottingham Forest, and finally Manchester United. It was a steady incline similar to the one O’Sullivan experienced during her time with Wilton United and Peamount United. Those days she served an apprenticeship in the local leagues before stepping up to the Women’s National League, and that’s where an opportunity arose to play in the Champions League.
O’Sullivan made three appearances for Peamount in the competition and they collected two wins in their qualifying group. Even though this wasn’t enough to qualify for the next round, it was a vital learning experience for someone still finding their feet.
A move to Glasgow City in 2013 allowed O’Sullivan to sharpen her skill set in a professional capacity. She spent three years at the club and won a clean sweep of domestic honours in addition to helping them reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 2014. O’Sullivan was scoring goals, winning trophies, and that was when a big money move came around from Houston Dash in the NSWL.
At the time, that was the money league in women’s football and the best players from all across the world were lining up for a chance to play. It featured a host of players from the United States’ 2015 World Cup winning squad and the Canadian team that reached the quarter-finals.
O’Sullivan has now played in the NWSL for six years and she is currently with North Carolina Courage.
The midfielder has won two league championships and three NWSL Shields, an annual award given to the team with the best regular season record. It’s an impressive haul given the fact that North Carolina Courage was founded in 2017.
O’Sullivan’s ultimate goal was getting Ireland to a first major tournament, something she helped achieve in October 2022.
All of her skills were utilised during Ireland’s long run to the play-off final at Hampden Park.
She used these to become the team’s engine, operating in front of a back four in a tight 4-5-1 formation for big games.
O’Sullivan covered holes in defence and sprayed balls out from the back, which allowed the likes of Katie McCabe to break from a wide position.
She also netted a hat-trick during an 11-0 win over Georgia in December 2021, a result that is the biggest-ever win recorded by an Irish team. That has led her to Australia and New Zealand, where a nation will hold its breath, and that is largely because of O’Sullivan.