Cork stars had a big impact on Irish soccer in 2022

Dylan O'Connell hails the heroics of Denise O'Sullivan, Caoimhín Kelleher and more last year
Cork stars had a big impact on Irish soccer in 2022

Caoimhín Kelleher with the trophy after Liverpool won the Carabao Cup, beating Chelsea 11-10 on penalties at Wembley. Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire.

A landmark year for Irish sport just ended and Cork was at the centre of some of the biggest soccer stories.

It all began with Caoímhin Kelleher helping Liverpool reach their first domestic cup final in six years. The shot-stopper featured in their 2-0 win over Arsenal in the second leg of the Carabao Cup semi-finals at the Emirates last January. That qualified the Reds for February's final where reigning European champions awaited.

RECORD-BREAKER: Caoimhin Kelleher of Liverpool saves a penalty taken by Craig Forsyth. Picture: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images
RECORD-BREAKER: Caoimhin Kelleher of Liverpool saves a penalty taken by Craig Forsyth. Picture: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Just as the city got to grips with Kelleher's heroics, another graduate of Ringmahon Ranger's academy was making headlines. This was Cathal Heffernan, who joined AC Milan on loan from the Rebel Army. The defender had been gathering praise over his work with City and the Irish underage squads, and the transfer to Italy stunned the whole country. 

Within a few weeks of making the move, the teenager was spotted alongside legend Paolo Maldini and this deal was made permanent in June.

Just as the news set in about Heffernan, Kelleher stepped out at Wembley for the first time. He made a number of incredible saves to deny Romelu Lukaku and Christian Pulisic, and this made sure the game was scoreless after 90 minutes. A penalty shootout was needed to decide the destination of the trophy, and that was when Kelleher truly stepped up. The goalkeeper; who came through Ringmahon's academy as a striker, scored what turned out to be the decisive penalty in the shoot-out. He converted while Kepa Arrizabalaga missed, and this ended a 10-year domestic cup drought at Anfield.

It also kickstarted a glorious run-in for Liverpool as they went on to lift the FA Cup last May and Kelleher made two appearances during their run to the final. The goalkeeper played against Shrewsbury Town and Cardiff City in the competition's early rounds and he nearly came on in the final when it looked like Alisson was injured.

Kelleher's performances at club level meant he was called into the Republic of Ireland squad for internationals against Belgium and Lithuania last March.

That round of fixtures saw Chiedozie Ogbene knock Belgium off number one spot in the FIFA World Rankings. The winger scored and set up Alan Browne in a 2-2 draw with the Red Devils at the Aviva Stadium.

ACADEMY

Ogbene, who came through at Cork City’s academy, brought his impressive form with Ireland to his club Rotherham United. The Millers were challenging for a league and cup double in the final few weeks of the season and he led their pursuit of silverware. Ogbene scored and got an assist as Rotherham beat Sutton United 4-2 in the EFL Trophy final. 

Rotherham United's Chiedozie Ogbene and Watford's Kortney Hause battle for the ball. Picture: Isaac Parkin/PA Wire.
Rotherham United's Chiedozie Ogbene and Watford's Kortney Hause battle for the ball. Picture: Isaac Parkin/PA Wire.

Their cup win led to promotion to the Championship by finishing second in League One. He adapted to life in England’s second tier seamlessly as he scored six goals in 18 appearances so far this season.

International football returned in June with the Republic of Ireland taking on Ukraine, Scotland, and Armenia in the UEFA Nations League. Stephen Kenny’s team got their first-ever win in the competition by beating the Tartan Army 3-0 at the Aviva Stadium, a rout which saw Browne knock in the first goal.

HISTORIC

The biggest result in the history of Irish women’s football was recorded in the autumn when the Girls in Green qualified for their first World Cup. They achieved this through the play-offs, and the team booked their place in that phase of the tournament by beating Finland 1-0 at Tallaght Stadium. The crucial goal came from a Megan Connolly free-kick that was turned in by Lily Agg, who qualifies for Ireland through her Cork-born grandmother.

Denise O’Sullivan then scored the only goal in a game against Slovakia and this made sure the team were into the play-off final, where they faced Scotland at Hampden Park. Ireland’s place at the World Cup was secured by Amber Barret, who ran onto a through ball from O’Sullivan and slotted in.

Denise O'Sullivan helped Ireland to the World Cup. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Denise O'Sullivan helped Ireland to the World Cup. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Once that international window came to an end, the attention was on Cork City, who achieved promotion back to the top flight of Irish football by winning the League of Ireland First Division. Colin Healy’s team dominated the race for the title and they secured the trophy with a 0-0 draw against Wexford at Turner’s Cross in October.

That feel-good factor around the club was enhanced in the offseason with the news that Kildare-based businessman Dermot Usher agreed to take over the club from FORAS.

It wasn’t just the Rebel Army who brought joy to football fans on Leeside. Cobh Ramblers won the centenary Munster Senior Cup at Turner’s Cross and that coincided with the club’s 100th anniversary.

That was 12 months for Cork and 2023 promises to be even better, especially with Ireland set to make their debut at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

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