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Old friends are best: Irish internationals Ogbene and Noonan zoom in for an end-of-year catch-up

Chiedozie Ogbene and Saoirse Noonan reflect on their paths to the top, which began with ‘do-or-die’ football games against each other on their estate in Cork… and their plans for the future.

THE CAREER TRAJECTORIES of Chiedozie Ogbene and Saoirse Noonan soar high and parallel. 

This year they both made their senior international debuts and then scored their first goals, while Saoirse won the league with Shelbourne as Chiedozie sits atop League One with Rotherham.

Their success comes as both renounced Gaelic football to follow their present career: Chiedozie played up to minor with Nemo Rangers and was expected to play senior with Cork while Saoirse did exactly that, playing in two All-Ireland finals while tipped by her manager as potentially “the face of ladies football for the next 10 years.” 

Their arcs rise from the same beginning: Grange in Cork. 

Both grew up together and remain close friends, so this week they joined The42 for a Zoom call to reflect on where they are…and where they’ve come from. 

NoonanOgbene

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Gavin Cooney (GC): Chiedozie, I’m right to say this friendship began when you moved to Saoirse’s estate?

Chiedozie Ogbene (CO): Yeah….and the rest is history. I moved to Amberley – Amberley is the park in Grange – and we used to always play football. Saoirse had goals in her garden that she brought out into the middle of the park so everyone could play.

I used to live up the road, it was called Amberley Way, and there was Amberley Drive. We used to have rivalries where Amberley Way would play Amberley Drive. They were the tough days: people would get injured and it was do-or-die. And back then, it wasn’t boys against girls, it was human versus human. So I would tackle Saoirse like she was any other player.

Initially, me and Saoirse were rivals. Enemies. I didn’t like her. She was the good football player, everyone picked her. We always used to play and only when you get older you realise it’s for the love of the game.

But that’s how it started. We moved in and we played soccer together. I played Gaelic football with her brother Eoin Noonan – who is a sports photographer now – and her Dad used to coach me. So I’m basically part of the family.

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GC: Saoirse, did you know you were once considered an enemy?

Saoirse Noonan (SN): You definitely made it clear to me, Edozie. You’re two years older than me, I have this memory of us after playing the game, and we were slagging each other the whole way through. We were only young, but we kept going at each other.

Afterwards he just lost the plot and started chasing me around a car, saying when he got hold of me, he’d kill me. I just remember running around the car, and he was much faster than me. I remember running, Help! Help!

CO: [Laughs]

SN: I just have that memory. It used to be a mudbath, we’d play morning, noon and night. I just remember him saying, ‘I am going to get you back!’

‘Oh no, I’m definitely dead in the next game.’

Edozie, you lived at the top of the hill and then you moved down, so you kind of became part of our team. We used to call ourselves Amberley Drive vs Amberley Way. So then you made your way into our team. Though it was hard to pick you.

CO:  I was a free agent! I had to go! 

SN: We used to have the Champions League music playing on the phones, playing as we walked out. We had referees, it was pure serious on the estate. It was do-or-die.

CO: We had a designated referee: a player who wasn’t playing. God bless that person. They got screamed at so much. You can just imagine. It was unbelievable, I wish I could do it again, honestly.

You never know where it will take you, of course, but sometimes I look back on it and say, ‘That’s crazy, like.’ I’m so happy our friendship stayed strong and we went through the journeys we did as we can talk about it.

It’s amazing, we would never believe we would be here one day, speaking about our childhood and how we played street football on the same estate. Even Adam Idah, who lived in another estate quite close to Grange, we all came from the same area, playing the same street football. 

GC: Did Adam play in your clasicos?

CO: No, he was across the road. Clifton it was called, where his grandmother lived. I was more likely to go and play with Adam because I was a man of many trades. I was running around the parks, playing with everybody. Saoirse was more the local champion, she’d look after her estate.

SN:  I made my way across there a few times, when I got older and a bit braver. 

adam-idah-and-chiedozie-ogbene Adam Idah and Ogbene in an Irish training session earlier this year. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

GC: Saoirse, was it mostly boys you were playing against on your estate?

SN:  It was almost all boys. There were three or four of us girls: Chelsea Noonan actually works with the FAI as a Development Officer, she was one of the girls who played on our estate. She has underage international caps too. It was nearly all boys.

GC: Chiedozie, you moved to Ireland when you were eight, but did playing football – even though it involved being kicked by Saoirse and your other neighbours – make you feel welcome, in a way?

CO: I moved [to Ireland] at eight, I didn’t move straight to Saoirse’s estate. I was living in Frankfield, a different estate. I think I moved into Saoirse’s estate after two years of being in the country. In my first estate I didn’t have many friends, there were kids who used to play street football but I just never had that bravery to play.

But when I came to Amberely and I was playing with these guys, it was a victory to be involved. I felt loved by the fact we were arguing. I felt that playing in the street, and fighting when things didn’t go your way, was a way of building a relationship and a bond.

Even though we fought every day, they would still knock on my door the next day. It’s nice to always feel wanted, and it made the day very exciting because you never knew what was going to come about.

GC: Did you play every day? 

CO: Every day. 

SN: Every single day. 

Once we finished the homework, it would be out on the road. Then we’d get called to come in for dinner, and Edozie would get called to go in for his dinner. Then we’d all try to shout, ‘Half an hour! Half an hour! Half-time!’ and then we’d be back on the estate again.

CO: Honestly.

SN: There was definitely a big crew of us that would try and have dinner at the same time. The games would be continued on throughout a week.

GC: You went from kicking lumps out of each other playing to becoming friends. Was that a natural process, or can you remember any specific moments? 

CO: I feel naturally we were friends anyway. Two euro back then was like, I don’t know, three million in today’s currency. So you give a young Saoirse two euro, go to SuperValu and she can buy the whole shop.

So we were friends but on the pitch we were enemies, honestly. It was like she was from a different planet, but after football we were all friends, and would walk up to the shop and get an ice cream or a chocolate bar.

We were always friends, but I don’t know why, on the pitch, we were ready to kill each other. It was very strange.

GC: That competitive element probably helped you get to where you’ve got.

SN: It just kind of came naturally. When Edozie joined Nemo as well, we used to drive down to training together. Some Saturdays we’d be brought to McDonalds afterwards as a treat. Just these little things that used to happen.

I’d train with the boys: my brother’s, my dad’s and Edozie’s team. He was like my other brother then, along with my older brother Eoin. They would be the ones who’d look after me.

The boys would never want to lose against you. You’re a little girl and you’re younger than them. They wouldn’t want to be seen being beaten by me. So sometimes it probably got a little bit too competitive and they would stand up for me.

On the estate he’d be the one probably killing me! But definitely when we’d be out and about down in Nemo and I’d fill in with the boys, and at times they would get aggressive because I might be a bit better than someone. They’d always have your back, so wouldn’t let guys push me over or take any crap, really. It was always nice to have them around me, and it grew from there, really.

CO: I remember one time Saoirse came down to play GAA with us, and I felt that as soon as she was on our team, the boys were always going to be protective. As a boy, I feel I was quite harsh on refs. Because any boy that tackled Saoirse, I was on top of the ref saying, ‘What’s going on?’

Sometimes I thought we were too protective. In the park we were doing UFC, but on a GAA pitch we were probably too protective. But I think it’s just human nature. I was best friends with Eoin, we played together all the way to U18s, so Saoirse was like a sister to me. So that’s how we were able to be harsh and soft toward her at the same time.

I remember one time a guy tackled Saoirse, to be fair to the guy it was an okay tackle. But I just felt it was too much force and my instinct was to go in, and I started playing dirty and that’s not like me. We love Saoirse, and her younger sister used to play too. Bless her, nobody used to tackle her. You couldn’t. She had the golden ticket!

saoirse-noonan Saoirse Noonan in action for Cork against Dublin in the 2018 All-Ireland final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

GC: Saoirse, Chiedozie made his big decision to focus on football over GAA earlier than you. Did the fact he did it inform your decision to do the same? 

SN: Yes and no. As a female, looking at Edozie making his move slightly earlier than me probably wasn’t something I thought about as making it as a male is a lot bigger gap than making it as a female for now, unfortunately. But I saw him make his debut and thought, ‘That’s definitely possible for me.’ The paths are similar in a way but they’re also not.

Going back to when we grew up, I just knew that it was going to benefit me. Looking back now, if I didn’t play street football with the boys and if I didn’t play GAA up to two years ago, I don’t think I’d be where I am today. All that did help me.

On and off the pitch, being part of a team and being involved with different groups, seeing the nature and the culture within different teams: it all benefits you. So when you move into another team you don’t have just one view on things, you can see it from different aspects.

GC: Chiedozie, do you ever wonder about what might have happened if you stuck with GAA? Might you have played senior inter-county for Cork? 

CO: I’m obviously happy with the way I’ve gone, but it was the hardest decision to make. I played with Nemo and I loved everyone and everyone loved me. I remember calling Paul O’Donovan to tell him I wasn’t going to show up to the replayed county final as I had a game against UCD with Cork City U19s. You can imagine how that went.

I just got to an age where I wanted to be a professional football player. And I was willing to risk everything. These were my goals, and as Saoirse says, you have to follow your dreams because if you don’t you’ll always have regrets. Even if I didn’t become a football player, I could always tell myself that I tried my best.

It was a difficult decision because I know how many people said I could have played inter-county football and I was promising, but I just knew I was never going to be the best GAA player because my heart was in football. But if I’m not the best football player, at least my heart is in it. That was the calculation I had to make, and I’m happy it paid off, obviously.

GC: It’s paid off for you both. If I’m right, Chiedozie, you made your senior international debut in Hungary, and then four days later, Saoirse, you got your first call-up? 

SN: Yep. 

GC: Are you guys in touch at this stage, sending each other messages? 

SN: We wouldn’t be in touch every day, but I dropped Chiedozie a message to say well done, and to say how delighted we were for him. He got back on a couple of days later to say well done to me, and then only a couple of weeks ago, I drove him up to Dublin.

We were speaking about him scoring his goal [against Azerbaijan] and how amazing it was, his experiences and my experiences, and then I went on to score [against Georgia]. And he was one of the first people on my phone to text me, so it’s definitely nice to have that friendship there and going strong.

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chiedozie-ogbene-celebrates-scoring-a-goal-with-callum-robinson Chiedozie Ogbene celebrates his goal against Luxembourg in last month's World Cup qualifier. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

GC: And your celebration was a nod to Chiedozie’s against Luxembourg? 

SN:  After I scored, everything was going through my head. I saw my brother [Eoin was working at the game for Sportsfile] and just thought of our conversation in the car. We literally spoke about everything. 

CO: I know. 

SN: What we could make our lives to be, how determined we both are. The salute: that was his celebration and it was just out of respect for him. Because I do have so much respect for him and what he’s achieved. And he’s by no means done yet, it’s only the start and I’m excited to see where he goes.

GC: Okay, what else was discussed on this car journey? 

SN: We’d be here all day. 

CO: Oh it’s confidential Gav, confidential.

It was just general stuff about football. I was quite intrigued by how the system is quite different between men’s and women’s football. I was quite intrigued by what steps they make, and how difficult it is. I feel as a female – I don’t know – but I feel there is a bigger sacrifice. As a guy you can get away playing with League Two in England and make a living for yourself. Females, you need to sacrifice many years of trying to convince a team to pick you and pay you the salary you deserve. I’m sure her ears were blowing up with all the questions I was asking.

But more importantly, we were just advising each other, on moving forward and what steps to take. We will hit adversity. You can’t stop it, it will happen. I just told her stuff I’ve done when I’ve had challenging times. And I just wanted to catch up. Our relationship is quite unique. We don’t have to stay in touch daily to know what’s going on. I may not talk to Saoirse for a month, then see her tomorrow and then continue where we left off. That’s from childhood. We don’t have to see each other every day, but then I’ll see Saoirse and talk as if we had seen each other yesterday.

It’s a relationship that I cherish.

SN: Yeah, I forgot to ask for his autograph. 

We look at these people every day on social media and so on, but you don’t see the background of the commitments and the sacrifices made by not that person alone but also their partners, their families, all who helped to get them here. It’s inspiring. To be able to speak to someone you grew up with…I knew everything he was doing day-to-day – his brothers were into running, his sister would come over and play in our front garden – and now you’re looking at him on a world stage playing in front of thousands of people – a full-on celebrity – and a week later he’s in your car giving you advice on how to get there.

You have to take a step back and say, ‘He’s a normal person, he’s worked so hard to achieve this.’ It’s definitely something I cherish and take on board. I was only delighted to be going up in the car with him and having that conversation. Look, it is amazing. I was waiting to see whether I was going to be picked in the Irish squad, and then I got in there and was thinking about all these things we’d spoken about as to how I could improve.

Then I came onto the pitch [against Georgia] and I had those butterflies in my belly knowing I could score.

Something Edozie said to me was to play with a smile. That is one thing I’ll always remember. Play with a smile and cherish the memories. That’s what I went and did.

That conversation and other conversations we’ve had have stuck with me. Because he is successful and even though he’s so successful now, he’s only beginning his career as a top footballer. I just can’t wait to see when he gets to the top, top level and looks down to say, ‘Yeah, this is what I’ve done.’ It’s exciting.

CO: Then I’ll be giving her the lift to Dublin, Gav. It will be the other way round. But she was the personal chauffeur for the day! 

GC: Are you sitting in the back!? 

CO: No [laughs]. I had to sit in the front and make it look professional, y’know?

saoirse-noonan-scores-a-goal Noonan scores her first senior international goal against Georgia. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

GC: Okay, one last question to round it all up. If you were somehow able to travel back in time to the estate in Grange and tell yourselves that you’d both go from kicking each other on the estate to playing and scoring for your country, what would you have said? 

CO: If someone travelled back in time to when me and Saoirse were young pups and told us, ‘Edozie and Saoirse, you are going to play and score goals for your country’…it is hard to believe. I’d have said Saoirse was more likely to do it than I would have been because I saw how talented she was. She had an ability that not many guys had, that’s why a lot of guys in the park were quite jealous of her.

Honestly, I’d have been shocked. And said nah, it’s not true. I was quite deep into GAA, so I was probably dreaming of playing inter-county at that stage.

If I had to go back and speak to us when we were younger I’d have said, keep doing what you’re doing and most importantly, you have to play with a smile. And you have to play free. Because when you’re happy, you’re at your best. You don’t lose anything by playing with a smile. If you lose you lose, if you win you’re playing with a smile and you’ll feel better.

SN: I’d agree. If you had told that to me when I was playing in the park, I’d think it was unreal and I knew I had it in my head forever. I told people I’d play for Ireland. I kept saying it almost to make it come true, but you still have that doubt. Will I actually make it? There’s hundreds of girls who want to play for Ireland. Will I actually make it into that squad of 23?

23 people. You have that in a little classroom. That’s how I look at it: I have to make it into this class. Even though you have the goal, you don’t believe it’s possible. Looking at kids now looking up at us, there’s more to see now and more to hold onto. When I was young I looked at the boys to hold onto what they had.

The only females I looked up to were the ones near to home, like Claire [Shine] and Denise [O'Sullivan] and Valerie Mulcahy. The 20×20 campaign shows there is more for girls to see now: you can watch the girls play Super League in England.

But yeah…I’d not have believed you.

The transcript was lightly edited for clarity  

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Gavin Cooney

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