Denise O'Sullivan. Tom Maher/INPHO

Denise O'Sullivan leading from the front through 'rollercoaster' 2023 for club and country

The Cork midfield maestro continually stars for Ireland and North Carolina Courage.

IT’S ONLY BEEN four months, but Denise O’Sullivan says the World Cup feels like “a lifetime ago”.

The final international window of 2023 brings with it time for reflection, and the Ireland and North Carolina Courage star is happy to look back through the year.

“It’s been amazing,” she tells The 42 ahead of the upcoming Uefa Nations League double-header against Hungary and Northern Ireland.

“I can’t say anything else, it’s been amazing, but it’s also been tough. It’s been a rollercoaster.

“The build-up to the World Cup was definitely tough because you’re always thinking of what you can do better and you’re always thinking, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ I was always anxious before the World Cup, to be quite honest, thinking that. We were there for so long together; unbelievable experience.

“There’s not many people in the world that get to say they were at the World Cup, so I’m very grateful for it. It was tough, obviously, not being able to push on in the group. I think we probably could have done a lot better than what we have done. But again, it was our first time at the World Cup.

“I think we’ve learned a lot from it and pushing on from the World Cup, the [Nations League] campaign has been good. We’ve obviously played against lower opposition, and no disrespect to them, but we’re going to be playing higher opposition in the future.

“I know we have a lot of potential in this team and I think we can push on even more.”

Later in the interview at the team’s Castleknock Hotel base, O’Sullivan elaborates on that ‘could have done better’ comment.

Ireland suffered narrow defeats to Australia and Canada and drew with Nigeria in a difficult group, but the Cork midfield maestro isn’t the first to share that sense of regret.

Having achieved promotion to League A and in turn, increasing their chances of reaching Euro 2025, qualification for a second major tournament is almost a non-negotiable for the Cork midfield maestro.

“As I said at the World Cup, I’m very competitive and I do think personally, I could have done better and as a team, we could have done better,” she adds. “I could probably speak for most of the team, they would say that.

“Going into the Euros, obviously, it’s gonna be really tough again, but as a group, we’re always looking to improve within every game. Knowing the potential that we do have in the group, I think we can go on and do good things in the Euros. It’s going to be hugely tough, but as I said, we have exceptional players. It’s probably one of the best squads we’ve had in a long time, so we will want to do better for sure.”

O’Sullivan is currently in her off-season after another solid campaign Stateside. The 29-year-old hasn’t returned to Knocknaheeny yet, and will be over and back again before Christmas, owing to kids’ football camps that she’s running, before fully joining her family for the festivities.

“A bit of back and forth, a lot of traveling, but need to come home for Christmas for my mam. She’d be devastated otherwise,” she grins.

“I needed to keep training and at a high standard so the best thing for me was to stay in America, have all the good facilities and what I’m really used to, still have myself in a routine. A good few stayed in North Carolina, some USA Girls preparing for camps, so we got together and the coaching staff at the Courage put on some sessions for us.”

Otherwise she’s kept ticking over with her own running and gym sessions, so is feeling fit and refreshed after an NWSL campaign which ended with a disappointing play-off defeat to eventual champions Gotham FC after a third-place finish.

denise-osullivan-celebrates-scoring-her-sides-first-goal-with-katie-mccabe O'Sullivan with Katie McCabe. Nikola Krstic / INPHO Nikola Krstic / INPHO / INPHO

“Obviously you want to be,” O’Sullivan begins, before changing tack, “I want to be winning championships. I’ve been in that position where I’ve won a few of them and I want to be winning leagues but yeah, we won the Challenge Cup.

“We’ve had a lot of new players come in so it’s been a big change from last year, and with the captain’s role as well, it’s been a big change for me, but it’s something I’m relishing. I love being captain of the club. It’s great, I get to test myself and see what else I have in my locker outside of on the pitch. It’s been good but hopefully we can kick on next year.

“I think there were power rankings at the start of the season and we were last in every single one — so, um, whatever to them anyway. I think we showed on the pitch what we can really do.”

O’Sullivan did too, as captain. She’s one of several club skippers in the Irish set-up, and she spoke to a few of those and sought out advice while taking the mantel.

“The most important thing for me was not to change who I was when I became captain. I think that’s really important. You see a lot of captains who do that, and it’s just fake to me. So for me, it’s just to be myself.

“It was tough, it definitely was, it was a big change. I’m not someone who’s very outspoken, so I think that might have been the most difficult thing for me. But even doing the speeches on every game day, you’re trying to think of something different to keep motivating the squad.

“But I’ve been at the club for so long, I think I was a leader before even getting named captain.”

She’s enjoyed that role with Ireland too, despite Katie McCabe wearing the armband in recent years. (An aside: O’Sullivan donned a McCabe 15 Arsenal jersey ahead of her Challenge Cup final win, and warns the Irish skipper “better” wear a Courage shirt at some stage.)

Teenage Peamount United duo Freya Healy (16) and Ellen Dolan (17) are the new faces in camp this week, and the centurion will happily offer a helping hand as they target six points and two good performances tomorrow and Tuesday.

“Just turned 16… mental,” O’Sullivan gasps. “Obviously, when you’re just turning 16 and you’re coming into a camp, girls that you’ve watched at the World Cup, you’re gonna be very intimidated.

“I’ve been in their shoes, and it’s tough coming into your first camp. It’s important that we welcome them and make them feel welcomed within the group. But outside of that, it’s on the training pitch, always helping them out, giving them advice, making sure that they know they can ask questions, I think that’s just hugely important and that will be my role here.

“And that always has been my role.”

Leading from the front.

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