You can’t but do a double-take when you check Saoirse Noonan’s age. It’s seven years, after all, since she made her senior Republic of Ireland debut, and since then she’s squeezed in a couple of All-Ireland football finals with Cork, as well as spells with Cork City and Shelbourne before moving to Durham in the English Championship. She should really be pushing the 30 mark. But she only turned 24 in July.
She won her first under Sue Ronan back in 2016, the same year she was named FAI under-17 player of the year, but had to wait until 2021 for her second under Vera Pauw. She was included in the 31-strong training squad before the World Cup, but missed the cut.
“It was really hard because obviously everyone wanted to be on that plane. I was heartbroken, but it’s sport and sport can be tough, you have your ups and downs.”
“I just have to look back and say I was honoured to be in that training camp, but of course it was bittersweet watching the games and thinking you could have been there. I was so close.”
“I was back in Durham for pre-season and a few of us met up to watch the games, I made some of the English girls throw on Irish jerseys. It was hard, but seeing the girls singing the national anthem, I’d goosebumps, it brought a tear to my eye. I’d have loved to have been there, who wouldn’t? But I think it just gave me more fire in my belly to play for my country again. And I’m absolutely delighted to be back in.”
“It’s a fresh start for everyone. When they bring in new staff you think ‘right, I have a chance to make a mark and impress’, that’s what you want to do. Everyone wants to be part of that historic day on Saturday at the Aviva.”
The striker is no stranger to the stadium having played in two FAI Cup finals there for Cork City, losing in 2020 but on the winning side in 2017 when she was part of the team that beat the then Gleeson-managed UCD Waves.
Unlike Saturday, when the women’s debut at the Aviva will be the sole event, that 2017 game was a curtain-raiser for the men’s final between Cork City and Dundalk, which attracted a crowd of 24,000. Few of them, though, were in their seats for the women’s decider.
“When the crowd started coming in, they were coming for the men, not to support us, some of them mightn’t even have known we were playing. When we went out at the start, the crowd wasn’t huge, but it was by the time we were lifting the cup. It was bitter sweet, but at the same time I think we just felt privileged to be there, the women’s game wasn’t at the level it is now.”
“I don’t think there’ll be a crowd coming in towards the end of Saturday’s game,” she smiles. “When we look around and see them, we’ll know they’re there for us, they all bought tickets to watch the women’s team. It’s a statement. We owe it to everyone to put on a good performance.”
Having played in front of 50,141 at Croke Park in 2018, when Cork lost to Dublin, she’s no stranger to big crowds, so doesn’t expect to be overwhelmed by the occasion. “And half the girls have just played in front of 80,000 in Australia, they’ve been on the big stage, so they’re not going to let it effect them. At the end of the day it’s a game of football, it’s where you want to be as an athlete, at the highest level. Everyone is just buzzing about getting the opportunity to play at the Aviva.”
In the absence of the injured Niamh Fahey, a victor with Galway back in 2004, Nooan will make history, if she gets minutes on Saturday, by becoming the first woman to have played in a senior All-Ireland final in Croke Park and a senior women’s soccer international at the Aviva.
Isn’t that right? “I’m not sure, I’ll have to look at that one – but if I am, that would be amazing.”
But first she has to get those minutes, with no shortage of competition for a place up front, not least from San Diego Wave’s Kyra Carusa and Standard Liege’s Amber Barrett, both of whom have started their club seasons brightly.
The Cork woman is ready for the challenge, though. Fire in the belly? A heap of it.