For any young talented footballer growing up in Cork, Ireland, there’s a different kind of pressure. After all, they are following in the footsteps of some of the greats; Roy Keane, Denis Irwin and co. Many within Irish football are still waiting for the next great battling midfielder or cultured full-back, and maybe if you’re focused solely on the men’s game, that is still the case. But there is one name already reaching the heights of her fellow Corkonians.
Denise O’Sullivan’s development started on the streets of Knocknaheeny where she tussled against her brothers and other local boys. The no-rules street football helped the young girl develop a physical and mental toughness that would soon make her one of the most sought-after central players of her generation.
In 2008, she joined local club Wilton United who instantly reached numerous cup finals at underage level. It didn’t take long for the national team to request her services and she was part of the U17s side that made Irish football history reaching the 2010 European Championship final, going on to compete at the World Cup.
By the end of that year, O’Sullivan was the talk of women’s football in Ireland. She was recruited by one of the country’s best female outfits, Peamount United, brought in to bolster their midfield unit ahead of the 2011 Champions League campaign. Now at the age of 17, she was not only shining on the domestic stage but made her senior international debut against Wales, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win. From that day onwards O’Sullivan became the player Ireland managers built their teams around.
In 2013, most young Irish female footballers would have hoped to secure university scholarships in an effort to continue playing. At just 19, O’Sullivan had what could be considered wilder dreams. She was focused on securing a professional opportunity and it didn’t take long in coming. Her exploits in the Champions League coupled with impressive international form earned her a move to Glasgow City FC, a well-established side in Scotland. She was also the first ever player to move from the FAI Women’s National League to the Scottish league.
Most recruits take time to find their feet at a new club in a new country but O’Sullivan scored on her debut against Rangers, only 18 days after signing. Her impressive run continued in the European Cup, helping Glasgow progress beyond the group stages. Over a two-year period, the Irishwoman won eight trophies and scored 33 goals in Scotland and by the end of 2015, was considered one of the league’s best-ever players.
In early 2016, Denise joined up with the Ireland squad to play a friendly against the USA in San Jose. Although the game was dominated by the World Cup winners, the Irishwoman caught the eye of Houston Dash who wasted no time in approaching Glasgow City FC. O’Sullivan again made history as Glasgow negotiated a four-figure transfer fee, the first time a Scottish club received compensation for a female player.
The switch to the US made sense. Nonetheless, it wasn’t easy to move so far from her family. Her first season with The Dash ended with reasonable success, appearing in 29 games, scoring twice with four assists, but as football tales go, Houston sacked the manager and appointed an interim coach. The change reduced O’Sullivan’s playing time and it would prove to be a definitive moment in her career. The mental strength she developed years before on the streets of Knocknaheeny came into play when she approached Houston Dash and requested to be placed on ‘waivers’ where she could be picked up by another team. It was a big gamble for the player as many others would have chosen simply to pack up and head home.
It took a mere two days for O’Sullivan to find another club with North Carolina Courage jumping at the chance to sign the Republic international. By the end of the 2017 season, she had played 13 out of 20 games as NC Courage went on to win the NWSL shield and advance to the play-offs. Ironically, the game which saw Courage clinch silverware came against her former team, Houston Dash.
The 2018 season would see the midfielder become a stalwart player within a talented North Carolina side. She made 24 appearances including 22 starts, and on average, recorded a 77% pass accuracy. It proved another hugely successful season for NC Courage and in a team filled with global stars such as Brazil’s Debinha and American striker Lynn Williams, it was O’Sullivan who earned the title of MVP. Not wanting to rest on her laurels, she spent the off-season on loan with Australian club Canberra United and while only playing seven games, she was deemed a “sensation” by the sports media Down Under.
Further success continued through the 2019 season as Courage secured the NWSL shield for a third consecutive time. Denise played a total of 2,158 minutes of football over 25 games and finished the season with an impressive 84% passing accuracy. Again, she was named the MVP, as voted by her teammates who included World Cup winner Sam Mewis referring to O’Sullivan as “the glue that holds the team together.” During the 2019 off-season, she again decided to go on loan, this time to Western Sydney Wanderers. Although her playing time was short, it was so impactful that one devout Wanderers fan decided to get a tattoo of the Irish star.
The same year, O’Sullivan was named in 65th spot in The Guardian’s Top 100 Players, ranking higher than Chelsea captain, Magdalena Eriksson, and Arsenal legend, Beth Mead. It wasn’t just a historic moment for Denise, but also Irish football, as she became the first Irish person, male or female, to make the prestigious list. Proving it wasn’t luck, she was included again in the 2020 edition. The Cork woman’s impact within the game has already put her up there with the likes of Keane and Irwin, but what’s most exciting is that it feels like it’s only half-time in the story of Denise O’Sullivan.
Seana Cooke is a lifelong League of Ireland fan and former international player from Dublin’s northside. Twitter: @seana_cooke
Mick O’Shea has been photographing Irish women’s football in |Ireland for almost two decades. Instagram: @womenssoccerphotos
The 8th edition of the Póg Mo Goal magazine is now available now. With over 70 pages, Ireland’s only football magazine features excellent feature writing, beautiful photography and illustrations from contributors across the globe. Issue 8 features photography and illustration from Ireland, England, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy, Australia and more. It also includes features on the greatest cult footballer you’ve never heard of, Glentoran’s European adventures, the Hungarian data pioneers from over half a century ago, Denise O’ Sullivan’s rising career, and more…
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