WHEN IRELAND INTERNATIONAL Denise O’Sullivan scored her debut goal for North Carolina Courage last year, she sprinted over to the team’s dugout to celebrate the moment.
It was the only goal of their National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) semi-final against the Chicago Red Stars, and it was enough to send them through to the decider where they would eventually bow out to the Portland Thorns.
The Cork-born player had a smile stretched across her face as she embraced her teammates and coaches, but the joyful scenes belied the difficult period she had just endured as a professional footballer.
She had come to the North Carolina side after leaving her previous club Houston Dash on the back of a drop in game-time. Her time on the pitch had been limited to scraps of five-minute appearances and it seemed as though there was no way to reverse the slide.
The lack of competitive action affected her confidence and a poor performance in an international friendly against Scotland prompted her to take control of the situation and asked to be released.
She was ready to leave the American dream behind and return to Europe to try and revive her club career. Speaking to The42 last year, she revealed that a club in Germany was on her radar, and a move was near completion.
In the mean time, however, she was put on a waive list, where other clubs in the NWSL could try to acquire her services. And when North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley heard that she was available, he pounced.
“When I contacted her,” he tells The42, ”she’d already made the decision that she wasn’t going to play in the league anymore so I was like, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to get her.’ We kept pushing, talking to her agent, talking to her.
“When we played Houston a couple of times, she was very, very good against us. I thought she was worth bringing in because she was really good against us.”
O’Sullivan was convinced by Riley’s pitch and abandoned her Germany plans to give herself another chance in the American league.
But the transfer to NC Courage was not all that straightforward.
O’Sullivan’s talent and ability was obvious to Riley, and he knew that he had plenty of potential to work with, but restoring her self-belief was job number one.
I think the biggest thing was the confidence and a player like Denise, if she doesn’t have any confidence, it’s very difficult to play at the level you want to play at,” says the Liverpool native.
“She really didn’t have a smile on her face when she came in and the most important thing was to make football fun again for her.
“That’s really what we tried to do, let her express herself, take risks and do things like as oppose to trying to put her in the box.
“We wanted her to be Denise again. She’s just been outstanding for us and got better and better.
She lacked a bit of confidence when she came in, she hadn’t played much for Houston which is astounding. Everyone I speak to couldn’t believe they didn’t play her but sometimes it depends on the coach and what kind of player they like.
“They obviously didn’t like that type of player and I love that type of player. She came [when] it was end of season and she settled down really well.”
NC Courage are currently top of the league and O’Sullivan has played an instrumental role in that successful run.
She was recently back home in Ireland to play two World Cup qualifiers against Slovakia and the Netherlands, as Colin Bell’s side look to qualify for the 2019 tournament in France.
They were unbeaten prior to those clashes in Tallaght Stadium, and although the meeting against the European champions condemned them to a first defeat of the campaign, they’re still in contention to bring Ireland to a first major tournament.
O’Sullivan has distinguished herself right throughout this series of World Cup qualifiers with her work-rate and ability to cover huge distances.
Her goal against Slovakia last October was a highlight, along with her industrious display against Holland the following month, where Ireland came away with a deserved point following a goalless draw.
Her recent international form illustrates the benefit that the move to NC Courage has had on her, and according to Riley, she plays a similar role when she’s on club duty.
“She gets forward, she defends. She harasses people and would be difficult for the opponent. She can play a final ball and is a great passer too.
“Her range of passing is improving and it’s something we’ve been working on with her,” says Riley who played with the Liverpool youth system and previously played alongside club legend Gary Ablett.
“Her work-rate is out of this world. We use GPS monitors and heart-rate monitors everyday and her expenditure and workload is unbelievable — top three on the team every day. It’s a credit to her because she’s got herself fitter than she’s ever been last year.
“She covers 12,000 metres a game. She’s an absolute monster for that stuff.
Last week she covered 32,000 metres for the week [at training] and she covered 12,000 metres in the game. She’s got serious numbers everyday.”
“She’s a good leader too, I can imagine her being a very good leader for the Irish international team.”
These elements of O’Sullivan’s game are qualities she has been perfecting since her teenage years, when she was plying her trade in Ireland as part of the Cork women’s football team which was established at the start of the National Women’s League in 2011.
Former Ireland international Sylvia Gee was also a member of the club during that time and from the early stages of O’Sullivan’s career, Gee could identify a player of international standard.
O’Sullivan was still eligible for U19 football when she was made captain of the Cork side, and Gee was confident that it wouldn’t be long before O’Sullivan would be competing against some of the best players in the world.
“There’s a lot of players you see who have the skills and the talent but they don’t work on it. Denise just worked, she just loves that effort and loves being involved. I loved being in the same team as her really.
When I saw Denise first, she kind of reminded me a little bit of Olivia O’Toole. Olivia would be the most skillful player I’ve ever seen in this country by a clear distance but I think Denise wouldn’t be too far behind that.
“With her skill and ability on the ball she can keep it at her feet and you’d be struggling to wonder how she gets out of situations, but she’s very skillful that way.
“I’m not knocking our league but if you’re a decent player and you’ve got qualities like what she has, you do hope that they get away and experience something that’s better than what we have here.”
Gee has kept herself informed of O’Sullivan’s progression over the years and she notes that her former teammate has improved her physical development since relocating to America.
She hopes that players in the domestic league will be one day able to avail of the same kind of strength and conditioning, but also concedes that O’Sullivan is in the best possible environment to get that level of training.
“The last time I saw her playing on the international team, she stood out to me as someone who’s powerful. She has a level of sharpness that wasn’t there when she was playing in Cork.
“At the moment, that’s only something you’ll get if you travel to play at a higher level than what’s available here.
“That’s not to say it won’t happen eventually but I think for now, playing professionally and playing every day will have a huge impact on that.”
“And it has had a huge impact on her.”
O’Sullivan is undoubtedly thriving with her new club and her performances have ensured that she is one of the first names to appear on the NC Courage team-sheet before each game.
Riley notes that she is among the top three or four midfielders in the league, which is a exceptional feat considering the soaring temperatures that she would be expected to play in compared to the inclement conditions she grew up with in Ireland.
And the close proximity between Cork and Liverpool has helped the pair to build a rapport, although O’Sullivan’s preference for Man United has often led to some mild slagging matches.
“I do my Irish accent which she thinks isn’t very good and I’m convinced it’s really good. We have great banter between the two of us.
She tells me it’s so bad and tries to put on a Liverpool accent and that is really bad. We do have a little giggle about it. Liverpool’s obviously been doing well and I bust her horns a little bit about that too.
“The most important part of the player/coach relationship is that the player knows the coach cares about them.
“It brings a good atmosphere here, we’ve got a team with a bit of grit and a bit of dynamism. I enjoy coaching them and Sulli’s been a breath of fresh air for us.
“It’s always nice that wasn’t successful somewhere, come in and do a really good job. She’s been dynamic since she’s come in and she’s obviously brought that into the international level in Ireland.
But just like every other athlete, there are parts of her game where O’Sullivan needs to work on in order to be an even better player.
Her goal against Chicago last year was indeed a significant score, but Riley knows she has the ability to be a more prolific goal-scorer.
“I love her as a player and I want her to score more goals and the next step for her is scoring more goals in games. It’s amazing to see in front of your own eyes what she’s achieved in the last five months and where she’s going.
“I think if there was a weakness in the game, her ability to get on the edge of the box and score goals and get some production from that position, especially when she’s in the 10. It’s different when she’s in the six.
“It’s a part of her game she’s really worked at and improved. She hits balls now that she would never hit eight or nine months ago. It’s brilliant to see.”
O’Sullivan’s goal celebration last October was a fitting end to a turbulent time for her as a club player.
NC Courage offered her the opportunity to reignite her professional career in America and after slamming her deflected shot into the net, she instinctively ran over to share her moment of personal triumph with the players and coaching staff.
Gee, who now plays with Limerick, is not surprised to see the trajectory that O’Sullivan’s career has taken, and is hopeful that she will be able to exhibit her skills in a World Cup or European tournament at some stage.
Riley is thrilled to be the coach that is guiding her through this exciting time in her career, and is certain that she can achieve so much more in the future.
“I think she could be one of the best midfielders in the world. I think this is the most difficult league to play in the world, [it's] a difficult league to win. It’s competitive every week whether it’s the team at the bottom or the top.
“If she adds the goals and can get more production at the end of the pitch, that will make her the complete midfielder. She wants it so bad that I know she’ll get there. There’s no question she’ll get there and I look forward to seeing her continue to grow.
“She wants to get better and she’s one of the most unselfish people I’ve ever met. She’s so selfless for the team. One or two years ago we were called the overachievers but we call ourselves the over-believers.
I believe in the players. I think she’s one for the future and I wouldn’t be surprised if she could be European Player of The Year, she’s that good and she’s improving that much.
“She’s been brilliant for us and I don’t think I can say a bad word about her because she’s been a huge part of the team.”
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