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From transition year in Ballincollig to facing the world champions in LA

Seventeen-year-old Éabha O’Mahony made her senior international debut for Ireland at the Rose Bowl.

ON THE EVENING of the Republic of Ireland’s recent game against the USA at the Pasadena Rose Bowl, there were a few moments when Éabha O’Mahony was reminded of the enormity of the occasion — never more so than during the warm-up.

“When we were doing our activation bands, I looked behind me and Kobe Bryant just walked past with his daughter,” she laughs. “It was crazy. You’re there trying to get ready for a game but you’re kind of star-struck as well at the same time.”

U.S. WNT defeats Ireland, 3-0 Former NBA star Kobe Bryant with daughter Bianka at the Rose Bowl to see USA take on Ireland. Source: Javier Rojas/Pi

It’s one of several noteworthy tales that O’Mahony will be able to share with her classmates when life as a second-level student resumes at the end of the month. Having completed transition year before the summer break began, she’ll return to Ballincollig Community School as a fully-fledged Irish international.

With sporting superstars and Hollywood celebrities among the 37,040 attendance, the Cork teenager made her senior debut as a second-half substitute in Ireland’s 3-0 defeat to the 2019 Women’s World Cup winners at the famous Los Angeles venue.

It was a significant achievement for a player who’s only a few months removed from her 17th birthday, yet one could also argue that it’s been a long time coming. O’Mahony, at the age of 15, was first summoned for involvement with the senior set-up in January 2018.

“Before the match, there were people there whose job it was to hold out flags and they all seemed like they were around the same age as me,” she recalls. “They were looking for a high-five so I was like, ‘okay, sure’. I didn’t know how to react. It was kind of funny.”

Sporting success often seemed an inevitability for Éabha O’Mahony. The only uncertainty related to the code in which it would occur. She excelled in Gaelic Games for Ballincollig and on the football pitch for Lakewood Athletic. The opportunity to represent her country at U15 level ultimately coaxed her in the direction of the latter. 

IMG-20190609-WA0003 Éabha O'Mahony plays her club football with Cork City. Source: Cork City FC Women

“Lionel Messi would probably have been the person I looked up to most,” she explains. “I remember bursting into tears when Argentina lost the World Cup final [in 2014] against Germany.

“When I was younger, whenever we’d go to family gatherings I’d have a pair of shorts on under my jeans just in case a match broke out.” 

Last season, O’Mahony made a significant leap forward by joining the senior squad at Cork City, having played her club football with Lakewood U16s the year before.

She made an instant impact in the Women’s National League. After winning the Player of the Month award for August 2018, she was then named in the Team of the Season.

Earlier this summer, O’Mahony — who has captained Ireland’s U17s — looked on in admiration as the USA team continued to break new ground and set new standards for the women’s game.

Soccer: U.S. Women's National Team Victory Tour-Ireland at USA A view of the Rose Bowl during Ireland's game against USA on 3 August. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

When the likes of Rose Lavelle, Crystal Dunn and Julie Ertz contributed to a successful World Cup title defence in Lyon, O’Mahony watched the 2-0 win against the Netherlands on TV. Weeks later, she was sharing a pitch with them.

“I was almost in awe of their team in the World Cup,” she says. “Last year it was a big thing for me to be involved with the Cork City seniors. To be playing against the world champions a year later was kind of unbelievable.” 

The USA were already three goals up when O’Mahony was sent on in the 69th minute to operate on the left side of Ireland’s midfield.  

“I think there was 80-something minutes played, the ball was out of play and we were kind of slowing things down — I just looked around, saw all the lights, heard all the chanting and I was just like, ‘wow, this is incredible’. 

“The size of the whole thing just kind of blows you away. It was so cool. Obviously you do switch back on quickly again. The fact that the game was on TV as well, I was trying to make sure I didn’t get nutmegged or anything like that! But it was all good. I thought I’d be really nervous but I was surprisingly calm.

Soccer: U.S. Women's National Team Victory Tour-Ireland at USA Ali Krieger of USA under pressure from Ireland's Éabha O'Mahony and Rianna Jarrett. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

“After watching them in the World Cup, I suppose I almost had them rated as superheroes. So when they made a mistake you’re thinking, ‘oh, they’re human too’. But they’re an amazing team. It was surreal to play against them. 

“When we got off the bus before the game, there were just thousands and thousands of people around. I’ve never seen anything like that for a women’s game before. It’s amazing that they get that level of support.

“Obviously it was all for them, but it was great to experience it. It’s down to their hard work that they’re in a position like that, which is definitely very inspiring.”

O’Mahony also picked up a valuable memento to mark the occasion: “We were given two jerseys so I was able to swap one. After the game I said to one of their staff, ‘look, I just want to swap a jersey, I don’t mind who I get’. I handed in my jersey and they came back with Alex Morgan’s. I was like, ‘that’ll do grand!’ so I was happy out heading back in for my shower.”

Now that a first cap has been secured, O’Mahony knows there’s no guarantee that more will follow, particularly given the current uncertainty surrounding the vacant Ireland manager’s position ahead of the European Championship qualifier against Montenegro on 3 September. 

IMG_0267 Éabha O'Mahony, accompanied by parents Gillian and Michael, at their home in Cork. Source: The42

Last month, her parents booked a holiday to the south of France and invited their daughter to join them. She did so on the condition that they attend a World Cup match, so tickets were procured for the Third Place Play-Off between Sweden and England.

The hope for O’Mahony is that the next time she attends a World Cup fixture, she won’t be a spectator. But both on the pitch and in the classroom, there’s plenty of work ahead.

A football scholarship at a US college is one of her targets, but she’s also determined to be part of a successful Ireland squad. At the Rose Bowl, they were extras in someone else’s show. An ongoing objective for this Irish side is to get to a place where they can feel confident of holding their own when in the company of the best teams in the game.

“I’m really happy to have a cap under my belt now,” she says. “I was just so thankful to even go on the trip to America. There are so many other players who could have gone instead. Hopefully my time will come if I keep working hard. I just need to keep my head down.

“Whenever I go into camps with the senior squad, I always come home wanting more. Then to be on the same pitch as the US team, I just feel really fortunate to have been given the opportunity. But now that it has happened, I’m kind of thinking that I’ve been on the same pitch as them, so why can’t I be like them?”

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Paul Dollery

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