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'What she's gone through, that's real life... sport is sport'
Cork All-Star Amy O’Connor looks at the Irish football set-up – and team-mates, one of whom is Chloe Mustaki – she left behind.

AMY O’CONNOR’S PASSION for, and dedication to, camogie is through the roof. 

Perhaps it was best seen this summer after three-in-a-row chasing Cork were knocked out of the All-Ireland senior championship at the semi-final stage.

The curtain came down on their 2019 season at the Gaelic Grounds on a Saturday night and while many threw the bag and boots away for a few days, St Vincent’s star O’Connor had other plans. She was the first up at club training the next morning.

“I’m obsessed with camogie, like,” the former underage soccer international says. Just in case that wasn’t evident already.

“The second we lost, I knew we had club training the following morning so I wanted to just… not try forget about it because to be honest I’ll never forget about it, I’m that type. But I just wanted to get straight back into playing camogie.

“I was very sore on the day after the Galway match but it was something I just had to do. I love playing with my club. I just love camogie.

I played loads of different sports; Gaelic football, soccer… I would have played them at a decent level as well but nothing ever will compare to playing camogie, and I genuinely mean that.

A decent level, she says. The 23-year-old is definitely underselling herself there. 

An extremely talented Gaelic footballer, the proud Knocknaheeny woman represented the Rebels up to minor level, while she juggled the two Gaelic games codes with the small matter of international soccer.

danique-kerkdijk-and-amy-oconnor Anders Hoven / INPHO O'Connor facing Netherlands at the 2014 U19 Euros. Anders Hoven / INPHO / INPHO

The four-time senior All-Ireland champion and 2019 All-Star no longer plays, but O’Connor was an integral part of the Ireland U19 team that made history by reaching the semi-finals of the Uefa European Championships in Norway in 2014.

While she, and others including Mayo Gaelic football and AFLW ace Sarah Rowe, opted to go down the Gaelic football route, the likes of Katie McCabe, Chloe Mustaki, Clare Shine, Lauren Dwyer, Keeva Keenan and Megan Connolly from that side pursued soccer and climbed the ranks to regularly make Irish senior squads. 

In fact, McCabe is now captain of the Girls In Green — and has been since the age of 21 — while Mustaki, Keenan and Shine are all in Vera Pauw’s squad to face Greece in their third Euro 2021 qualifier tomorrow [KO 1pm Irish time, live on RTÉ 2].

Currently second in Group I behind runaway leaders Germany, Ireland are in good stead after a 3-2 win over second seeds Ukraine in front of a record-breaking crowd at Tallaght Stadium last month. In their opener, they were 2-0 winners over Montenegro.

What could have been for O’Connor.

She’s said it before though, and she’ll say it again: she doesn’t miss “a blessed bit” of soccer. 

ireland u19 Peter Fitzpatrick / extratime.ie. Katie McCabe (11), Chloe Mustaki (6), Clare Shine (8) and O'Connor (7). Peter Fitzpatrick / extratime.ie. / extratime.ie.

“I watched the World Cup, alright,” she notes. “Maybe it would be different if I didn’t love camogie as much. There’s not a part of my life missing, whereas when I was playing soccer, I felt like a huge part of my life was missing because I wasn’t playing camogie.  

“Obviously the Irish girls are doing well, I would have played with the majority of them. They’re doing very well at the moment and that’s good to see. I’m interested in all sports but I just don’t miss getting up and having to go soccer training.

“I don’t miss it,” she laughs, “I probably shouldn’t say that like but….”

She might not miss a bit of it, but she keeps the closest of eyes on the set-up. 

And can’t help but share her joy for her former team-mates who are excelling on the international stage. There’s one person in particular she’s especially pleased for. 

“I’m delighted for Chloe Mustaki in particular,” O’Connor smiles. “I would have played with Chloe a good bit as well. I was absolutely delighted when I saw that her name was in the squad. She’s there again.

For what she’s gone through, like, that’s real life. Sport is sport. I was genuinely so happy for Chloe.

Mustaki was captain of that star-studded side who became the first-ever Irish team to qualify for the U19 European Championships — never mind top the group there and make the last four.

chloe-mustaki-and-vera-pauw Oisin Keniry / INPHO Pauw watching Mustaki at training. Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

But when she came home from that tournament, the rising star was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Five years on, the Shelbourne midfielder is back to her brilliant best and earned a first senior call-up last month. An emotionally-charged night at Tallaght Stadium followed and although she didn’t feature, she’s in line to feature in Athens tomorrow.

Another member of the Irish squad she’s pleased to see thriving is Denise O’Sullivan.  

Also from Knocknaheeny, a suburban area situated in the hills overlooking Cork city which suffers from anti-social problems, O’Connor and O’Sullivan are both natives who have represented the locality with distinction in their respective fields.

Literally I could walk to Denise’s house in two minutes,” O’Connor explains. “Denise is flying… flying, literally. She’s brilliant.

Ireland’s midfield maestro capped a memorable few weeks on Saturday night as she was named Women’s Senior International Player of the Year. 25-year-old O’Sullivan, who plies her trade Stateside and is now heading to Australia for a stint, has been brilliant in the green jersey through the years while her club form has been electric of late.

Screenshot 2019-11-11 at 18.29.39 Gareth Maher / The42. O'Connor (8), Chloe Mustaki (6), Keeva Keenan (7), Megan Connolly (9), Katie McCabe (11) and Sarah Rowe (13). Gareth Maher / The42. / The42.

In recent weeks, she was named North Carolina Courage’s MVP for the second consecutive year, while she followed that up with a second league title on the bounce.

Pauw spoke for the nation last week when she noted that, “Denise is one of the best players in the world.”

O’Connor whole-heartedly agrees.

“She probably doesn’t get the credit she deserves over there because I’d say there’s an awful lot of politics involved because she’s Irish, not American,” her old neighbour adds. “She’s playing with the top team in the league, their MVP twice in-a-row. 

I would have played with her growing up. I think when Denise hit 16, that was it like, she was going to be a professional soccer player. The amount of work she put in to get there, it’s unbelievable.

“In fairness to her, she’s flying, thank God.”

And she’s not had the easiest of times, either. O’Sullivan’s father passed away a few weeks before she moved to the US in 2016. A confidence-sapping spell at Houston Dash followed; she was frozen out and eventually let go.

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“It baffles me what Houston Dash were doing, I honestly was like, ‘Are they stupid, like?’” O’Connor laughs and jokes. But she’s serious.

“Her fitness, like – I think that’s why she’s… now, obviously technically she’s brilliant as well, but she’s probably the fittest… to look at Denise, like, Denise is tiny. She’s probably half the size of me and I’m small. Now, she is a bit taller.

But she worked so hard to get to that. I think she’s deceiving in a way. Say if you were going out to mark her, you’d probably say, ‘She’s very thin, you’d push her off the ball.’ But she’s so strong, there’s no moving her.

“Fair play, she’s flying, thank God,” she repeats.

She can’t but be happy for them all.

Pleased to see Glasgow City’s Clare Shine back involved — “Clare is brilliant. I think once Clare is in now, she’s in” — O’Connor is delighted to see these talents given an opportunity.

“It was good to see while [interim manager] Tom O’Connor was involved, he blooded a few players — the likes of Jess Gargan. I thought that was good to give them a chance.

amy-oconnor Bryan Keane / INPHO O'Connor at the Launch Of The Liberty Insurance Camogie All-Stars Tour To New York last week. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

“I think [assistant manager] Eileen Gleeson is huge because she knows… I remember having conversations with Eileen to play Champions League with Peamount years and years ago.

She knows players from Ireland inside out. I think her addition is brilliant for the squad. She knows the players since they were 11 years old, you know that way.

“It’s very positive for them,” she adds. “I’d say they’ll qualify, hopefully. It would be exciting next summer, something to watch.”

Hopefully, indeed. At the end of our conversation, O’Connor laughs at the fact she said she doesn’t miss soccer at all but then goes on to talk about it, and the ins and outs of the Ireland squad, for a good 10 minutes or so. 

One thing’s for sure: no matter how passionate she is about camogie, she’ll always find time to be her former team-mates’ and old friends’ number one fan.

And she’ll most definitely be watching on tomorrow afternoon.

***

Ireland squad list v Greece 

Panionios, Athens — KO 1pm, Irish time [live on RTÉ 2]

Goalkeepers: Marie Hourihan (SC Braga), Grace Moloney (Reading), Niamh Reid Burke (Peamount United)
Defenders: Keeva Keenan (Celtic), Diane Caldwell (SC Sand), Claire O’Riordan (MSV Duisburg), Louise Quinn (Arsenal), Chloe Mustaki (Shelbourne), Eabha O’Mahony (Cork City WFC)
Midfielders: Niamh Fahey (Liverpool), Denise O’Sullivan (North Carolina Courage), Stephanie Roche (CF Florentia), Tyler Toland (Manchester City), Hayley Nolan (University of Hartford), Jessica Ziu (Shelbourne), Jamie Finn (Shelbourne), Katie McCabe (Arsenal), Julie-Ann Russell (Sydney University)
Forwards: Rianna Jarrett (Wexford Youths), Leanne Kiernan (West Ham United), Amber Barrett (FC Koln), Emily Whelan (Shelbourne), Clare Shine (Glasgow City).

Read more about Ireland-Greece here>

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