Saoirse Noonan and Chiedozie Ogbene: childhood friends who joined football's elite

After growing up together in Cork, the international pair's careers have followed a strangely similar path

It was on Monday that Saoirse Noonan was reading back through some old text messages when she came upon one she received in June from a childhood pal. She had just congratulated him on making his debut for Ireland and he had replied to say he knew she would make hers soon too.

“And when you come on, play with a smile and enjoy it,” he said.

There's been plenty to smile about since for both Noonan and Chiedozie Ogbene, friends since they grew up on the same estate in Grange on the south side of Cork.

Four days after Ogbene made his debut, Noonan was called up to the Irish squad. In October, Ogbene scored his first international goal, against Azerbaijan. Twelve days later Noonan made her debut against Sweden. Last Saturday, she won the league with Shelbourne. A day later, Ogbene scored for Ireland against Luxembourg and was named man of the match. This week, Noonan is preparing to play in Sunday's FAI Cup final.


By now, the pair must be worn out from sending congratulatory texts to each other.

“Playing with a smile, that’s exactly what he’s been doing,” says Noonan. “I’m absolutely delighted for him, unbelievably proud. I’ve known him since we were small, we’ve grown up together. We’d always have banter, who’s better, all that – of course, I always said it was me.

“My Dad used to bring us all down to Nemo Rangers every Saturday for training, we both played Gaelic football there, then we’d come back home and play soccer. I know how hard he worked for this, how much he’d wanted it for so long, so what he has achieved has definitely encouraged me – it just shows what you can do if you put in the work.”

It was back in February that the 22-year-old made the biggest decision of her sporting life so far when she moved from Cork City to Shelbourne. In doing so, she was pressing pause on a Gaelic football career that had already seen her play in two senior All-Ireland finals, her impact – and phenomenal scoring record – since she got on the senior panel in 2018 resulting in then Cork manager Ephie Fitzgerald declaring that "she could be the face of ladies' football for the next 10 years".

Soccer ambitions

But Noonan had soccer ambitions too having played for Ireland since under-15 level, featuring in a senior squad as far back as 2016, when she was just 17, Sue Ronan naming in her a panel composed solely of home-based players for a couple of training camp friendlies against Wales.

She kept both codes going until the end of last year, but it began to become too much. In the space of eight December days she played in the FAI Cup final for Cork City and the All-Ireland final with Cork, having to find time for her marketing studies in Munster Technological University in the build-up to both.

“Those weeks are demanding in one sport, never mind in two,” she says. “I was training seven nights a week, and then most weekends I had a game on the Saturday and Sunday. I was driving myself, because of Covid restrictions, so that was taking a toll. There was one weekend I had to go down to Tralee for a match, back home, then up to Dublin for a match next day, and then back home again. It was hectic.”

“So, moving to Shelbourne was really about getting away from trying to juggle both in Cork. When I got the offer it sat right with me. It just allowed me step away from the home environment, away from the GAA. Even if I stayed at Cork City and said I was focusing on soccer, there probably would have been a stage when someone would have come knocking and said ‘come back to Gaelic football’. It would have been too accessible for me. So, that’s the main reason I made that choice for myself.”

There’s still plenty of travelling to be done. Noonan commutes from Cork to Dublin twice during the week for training, staying up at weekends for matches, but she still finds that schedule a whole lot easier than the one she had before.

The goal for the year was to help Shelbourne win trophies and force her way into the Irish squad. Mission accomplished – with a cup final to come.

Last Saturday she was a member of the Shelbourne team that, in remarkable circumstances, won its first SSE Airtricity National League title since 2016 after they beat Wexford Youths 3-2 and Peamount United, who were two points clear going into the final weekend, lost a two-goal lead to go down 5-2 to Galway.

“I actually don’t even know how it happened, I don’t think any of us does. Madness,” she laughs. “We all had belief going into the final game, but it was false belief, in a way.

‘Panic stations’

"We could hear the roars and stuff from the crowd, but we didn't know till half-time that Peamount had been 2-0 up and then it was 2-2. Coming towards the end we were hearing different things, that it was 4-3, that it was 3-3. It was around the 80th minute one of the girls shouted that Galway were 4-2 up, and I'm like, 'that can't be true.' 'It is, it is,' she said. Then the crowd went mad again, it was 5-2. It was panic stations then. 'Do not throw this away.' We were 3-0 up, then it was 3-2 . . ."

Nerves shredded?

“Ah, stop.”

They held on, though, and after her first season with Shels, for whom she was top scorer with 12 goals, she’s a title winner.

“Going there, I wanted to try and win stuff, but I never thought I’d actually be in these shoes, winning a league title and going for the cup in my first year, it’s overwhelming.”

After that cup final meeting with Wexford Youths, Noonan hopes to be involved with Ireland for the key World Cup qualifying games against Slovakia on Thursday and Georgia on Tuesday week in Tallaght.

“When I got that phone call in the summer to say I was in the squad, I was a bit overwhelmed. At first, there were definitely days when I was like, ‘oh my God, am I actually here, am I going to be able to compete with these players for a chance on the team?’ But it’s just about adapting and trying to enjoy the environment.

“The likes of Katie [McCabe], Denise [O’Sullivan], Louise Quinn, they’ve all been around the block, they take it to the next level. The intensity is definitely at a higher level than I ever played at before, but I think after the first camp I found my feet and was able to express myself a bit more.

“Everyone was buzzing after winning in Finland, they worked so hard for it, the atmosphere in the group after was fantastic. Now we just want to keep it going, starting with Slovakia.”

But first, Noonan will try to do the double with Shelbourne. Then she’ll turn her thoughts to World Cup qualifying matters.

It’s been some year. No wonder she’s playing with a smile.

FAI Cup final, Shelbourne v Wexford Youths, Sunday, 5.30pm. Coverage starts on RTÉ2 at 4.45pm

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times