It’s 12 years since Denise O’Sullivan made her senior Irish debut, before adding another 108 caps and scoring 20 goals. There’s rarely been a dull moment on that journey, but nothing quite matched the “rollercoaster” that 2023 has proved to be for the Cork woman, for both club and country. The highest of highs, with a few deep dips thrown in.
On the club front, she was made captain of North Carolina Courage in February, an honour that reflected her standing at the club she joined six years ago. She led them to their second consecutive NWSL Challenge Cup in September, but the following month they were knocked out of the league play-offs at the quarter-final stage by Irish team-mate Sinead Farrelly’s NJ/NY Gotham, the eventual champions.
Come the end-of-season awards, she was named in the NWSL’s Best XI Second Team. Only three players in the whole league, United States internationals Sam Coffey and Jaedyn Shaw and Brazil’s Debinha, who all made the first XI, were rated above her in the midfield department.
And for Ireland, she captained the side in their April friendly against the US in Texas on the occasion of her 100th cap.,The panic that set in after she was injured in that bizarre pre-World Cup game against Colombia, which was abandoned after 20 minutes, was a measure of her importance to the national team’s prospects.
And then there was the World Cup itself.
“A lifetime ago!” It feels that way all right.,O’Sullivan reflects on the campaign with decidedly mixed feelings.
“It’s been an amazing year, but it’s also been tough. A rollercoaster. There’s not many people who get to say they were at the World Cup, so I’m very grateful for it. But it was tough not being able to push on in the group. I think we probably could have done a lot better, but again, it was our first time at the World Cup.”
After Ireland’s Nations League victory in Budapest in September, O’Sullivan made pointed enough remarks that hinted at her unhappiness with her role in the team under Vera Pauw. “Is it much more enjoyable for you now, do you feel unleashed?” she was asked. “Can you tell?” she replied with a laugh. That was a yes. “I think we’re all happy as players with this new style of play, we are a team that is trying to play football right now.”
But she directs her disappointment about the performances in Australia at herself as much as she does at her former coach. “I’m very competitive and I do think I could have done better. And as a team we could have done better. I could probably speak for most of the players, they would say the same.”
This Nations League campaign, though, is about moving on, and trying to build on what the team has achieved over the last couple of years. So far, so good, four wins out of four, the last secured by O’Sullivan’s later winner away to Albania last month in monsoon-like conditions.
Promotion to the top flight of the competition has already been sealed, so little rests on Friday’s game against Hungary and Tuesday’s trip to Belfast to take on Northern Ireland.
“But it’s so important that we finish on a high and get these six points because it keeps our confidence high as a group,” she says. “We’ve obviously played against lower opposition in this campaign – and no disrespect to them – but we’re going to be playing stronger teams next year.”
“And they’re the teams you want to be playing. That’s how you’re going to improve and that’s how you’re going to really test yourself. Knowing the potential that we have in the group, I think we can go on and do good things in the Euros. It’s going to be tough, but we have exceptional players. It’s probably one of the best squads we’ve had in a long time.”
It’s off-season now in the US, but O’Sullivan hasn’t been putting her feet up, training hard at her club, which has facilitated its international players whose season carries on. “And I’ve been doing my own running, my own gym sessions outside of that as well, so I’m feeling fit and refreshed.”
Plenty of air miles to be racked up yet, though.
“I’ll go back to Cork after this for some kids camps, then I’ll go back to America and I’ll come home for Christmas. A bit of back and forth after this camp, a lot of travelling. But I need to come home for Christmas for my Mam. She’d be devastated otherwise.”
You let your Ma down at your peril.
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