Thursday 9 February 2023 Dublin: 2°C
London City Lionesses. Hayley Nolan: 'It's really exciting for both club and country.'
# Hayley's comet
London Calling after the American Dream - An Irish star impressing under the radar
Ahead of the new Championship season, Hayley Nolan retraces her journey so far and looks to the future.

HAYLEY NOLAN WON’T shy away from the fact that this could potentially be the biggest season of her career.

A Republic of Ireland international who often flies under the radar, the Kildare native is currently operating at Championship level with London City Lionesses. Nolan has established herself as a standout player there, re-invigorated at centre-back, impressing and exuding leadership, though has just one Ireland senior cap to her name.

(She has made a slight breakthrough under Vera Pauw; called up for her first camp in charge in October 2019, and debuting in a friendly against Belgium last April.)

Her journey to date has been a colourful one, having taken the road less travelled and living the American Dream before London came calling. It’s one she’s more than happy to retrace, obliging to do this interview just four days out from London City’s league opener against Crystal Palace.

Perfect timing from The42‘s perspective to take stock of her rise to date, perhaps not just as convenient for Nolan. But she’s incredibly accommodating and engaging, the conversation a throughly enjoyable one.

It’s probably best shared in chronological order.

25 now, Nolan grew up in Naas. Her childhood was a typically-Irish one, revolving around family and sport, with GAA naturally prominent. In time though, football took precedence.

“My family are very sporty, my sisters are very, very sporty,” she smiles down a video call, with a nod to her older siblings Katie and Sarah. “We’re a very competitive household in anything that we do, regardless if it’s sports or not. We’re a very competitive group!

“My parents were the type to let us try every sport. Me and my sisters played every sport under the sun when we were younger.”

Her father, John, coached a local underage boys’ football team, and that’s ultimately where the grá began. He’d take his three daughters along, and when he saw their interest grow and grow, with the age-limit reached, began looking for a girls’ team. It proved a difficult challenge at the time, but he eventually came across Peamount United, and the trio joined together.

Katie and Sarah fell away to pursue other sports, but Hayley was hooked.

She climbed the ranks at Peas, the talented centre-midfielder’s star rising simultaneously, as she made her senior debut at just 16. Similarly, she climbed through the various Ireland underage set-ups — but missing out at one point ultimately laid the foundations for her move Stateside.

dublin-ireland-10th-april-2016-hayley-nolan-of-ireland-u19-takes-a-penalty-kick-and-scores-for-her-team-ireland-women-u19-v-poland-women-u19-uefa-european-championship-elite-phase-qualifiers-ta Alamy Stock Photo Representing Ireland U19s in 2016. Alamy Stock Photo

Only 15 at the time, she was called up to train with the Ireland U17s, having also agreed to play in a tournament in Dallas on a team of rising stars from Dublin and surrounding areas.

She came close to being selected by then-Ireland U17 manager Dave Connell, but ultimately fell short. “At the time, I was devastated that he didn’t choose me, but it actually opened a door because I got to go to America with the tournaments on at the same time,” Nolan recalls.

“When I got there, I fell in love with the place, the country. The minute I got there, I was like, ‘I really like it here.’ I spoke to a lot of college coaches, they gave me leaflets and flyers about going to study in America and I think that’s what spurred my interest.”

She clearly caught the eye and made an impression, entering the collegiate system a few short years later. Likewise, it all came full circle at international level as she played a starring role for Connell’s U19 history-makers who made the European Championship semi-final in 2014 against all odds — “one of the highlights of my career,” she beams.

Nolan was recruited by the University of Hartford the following year, undertaking a four-year scholarship which allowed her to balance her football and studies in Economics and Finance. 

“Obviously when you’re 17, 18, you’re kind of wondering, ‘Will I just go straight into a professional set-up or should I continue my studies?’ I had this conversation with my parents, but still it’s a decision you have to make by yourself as well. Education is just as important, so to be able to do both was a win-win. It was a no-brainer.”

She speaks of the mind-blowing facilities and top-quality coaching, how much she loved living there and how much she enjoyed her football, and of course, the significance of achieving a degree at the same time.

Covid-19 hit as Nolan’s fifth year in Connecticut came to a close, so she returned to these shores a little early that March. Like everything else at the time, her career was in limbo.

Lisa Fallon was head coach of London City back then– the Millwall Lionesses having split from Millwall FC to become an independent club, London City Lionesses, the previous year — and she showed serious interest.

“I knew I wanted to play professional football, I just didn’t know exactly where I wanted to play,” Nolan notes. “I was looking around, I was open to the possibility of going into Europe as well, because I like to travel and it would have given me an opportunity to live in a in a hot country, which would have been nice!

hayley-nolan-15-london-city-lionesses-signs-autographs-for-the-fans-after-the-fa-womens-championship-fixture-between-london-city-lionesses-v-blackburn-rovers-at-princes-park-in-dartford-england Alamy Stock Photo Meeting fans last season. Alamy Stock Photo

“But I got chatting to Lisa quite early on in the summer of 2020, they had this amazing project going on at London City and she wanted me to be a part of it. I was obviously researching the background, a new club, this kind of stuff. But the minute I spoke to Lisa and I sat down with her, I think I was sold that I wanted to come to London. I’m a bit of a city girl anyway, so that suited my style.”

She suited theirs too, as it came to happen. That same summer, before anything concrete came off those talks though, she took part in a TV show called Ultimate Goal, a programme on BT Sport which looked to unearth the next female football superstar.

Lights, cameras, action. Weird, but wonderful. Eye-opening, and “a once in a lifetime opportunity,” she explains.

“I was interested in coming to London City but at the same time, to do the show up in St George’s Park, I said, ‘Why not?’ I got to train in great facilities, meet amazing people within the football world and in the media side as well — Eni Aluko, trained by Farah Williams; just amazing and you can’t really turn those opportunities down. I really, really enjoyed it.”

She’s done so through her time at the Lionesses to date, too, constantly speaking about the passion and determination at the club; that Irish connection sparked again after Fallon’s departure — Melissa Philips is at the helm now — with the arrival of Rianna Jarrett and presence of recent recruit Lily Agg.

“That’s why I signed to stay my third year here, I really, really like the environment and the culture. It’s quite infectious. It’s a demanding environment, you’re gonna get the best out of yourself, but also it’s a very caring environment and one, which I think I thrive in. The rest of the girls would probably say the same, that’s why they stick around.

“Me and Ri have known each other for years, playing in the WNL, so when she signed, I was obviously delighted to get someone you’ve known since you were a kid, a mentor and just a friend that understands what you’re going through as well. Lily too, she’s declared for Ireland, she’s doing so well for the Irish team. It’s great to have more Irish and hopefully there’ll be a couple more girls, who knows, in the coming years.”

Her second season was a challenging one, hampered before it even began.

A “very bizarre” dislocated shoulder sustained without contact just before their opening game of the season stopped her in her tracks.

“That was actually my very first injury that sidelined me! It was definitely crappy timing, but that’s football and these things can happen. I didn’t know much about it, I thought I’d be back after a week or two. When I was given the news that I was out for five or six months, I was obviously devastated.”

“But I’m back stronger than ever,” she adds, with no shortage of thank yous to those who rallied around her and helped her return with no issues.

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london-citys-hayley-nolan-left-and-london-bees-sophie-mclean-battle-for-the-ball-during-the-fa-womens-championship-match-at-the-hive-barnet Alamy Stock Photo Coming out on top against London Bees in January 2021. Alamy Stock Photo

From “cheerleader” to playing an integral part through the latter stages of last season, Nolan has been reaping the rewards of a move to centre-back from centre-mid, having only played there a handful of times before as injury cover.

“When I was breaking my way into the Irish squad and obviously making that professional move, Vera [Pauw, Ireland manager] thought that I was better suited for a centre-back position,” she reveals.

“And to be fair, anytime I played centre-back, I’ve always really enjoyed it. I sat down with Melissa here at London City and said I wanted to give it a go, give it a shot and be a centre-back, see how that feels. Since I’ve done that, to be fair, it’s been more suited to me and more suited to my playing style. I’ve really enjoyed it.”

She’s solidified her position there, the best of both worlds as she stays solid at the back and is allowed a few runs up-field.

With nailed-on defensive regulars in situ for the Girls In Green, Nolan is well aware of the sizeable challenge that lies ahead to get back regularly featuring in squads. But she’s hell-bent on returning to the mix, acknowledging she’s part of the journey regardless and hugely driven since being part of Connell’s golden generation alongside Katie McCabe, Megan Connolly and Chloe Mustaki.

“To do that at such young age was something that sets fire under you because then you want to keep doing that and you want to reach more tournaments,” she beams.

“I know that the girls feel the same way, the senior squad, through their brilliant World Cup qualification campaign. Coming off the back of the Euros and seeing England here doing so well, it just makes you more motivated and more determined to do that for your own country and to get your own country over the line. 

“I’ve been in and out of squads and obviously the injury kind of set me back, but my goal since I was a kid was to be a senior Republic of Ireland representative and to be on that team. And that’s for the coming five, six, seven years, whatever I have left in my career, I want to help the Irish team get to major tournaments… not just qualify for the World Cup and play at the Euros, we want to be competitive there.”

Likewise with London City, who kick off their new Championship campaign on home soil at Princes Park tomorrow [KO 12.30pm].

“Everyone’s really eager to get going. It’s a London Derby. Palace have always given us a tough game the last couple years so it will definitely be a good opening game for us. We’re hopeful that this is the year that we can push on and get up to the WSL.

hayley-nolan Brian Reilly-Troy / INPHO In Ireland training in 2020. Brian Reilly-Troy / INPHO / INPHO

“Last year, people said it was gonna be the most competitive year that the Championship had. I think this year is gonna top that again. It’s very hard to say who’s gonna grab that promotion spot, there’s probably five or six teams who are definitely going to be competing for that. Finishing the season second last year, we were a bit disappointed. I think people think we over-achieved but we definitely, for us, didn’t feel that way. First place was always the ambition and always the goal, and we’re going to do the same again this year.”

With Nolan to the fore, and Jarrett and Agg also set to play key roles as they fly the Irish flag, no doubt they will.

“It’s really exciting for both club and country,” she concludes with a smile, sharing her ambitions. “I think this can be an amazing year for my personal career and also the club. Like I said, the club disbanded in 2019, but just say we get promoted, to be a WSL team in 2023 is such a quick turnaround.

“My goal is to help them get promoted. My goal is also to be able to repeat and to help the team each weekend. And then hopefully my performances merit a call-up back into the Irish team.”

At this rate, they should do sooner rather than later.

A big season ahead for Hayley Nolan. One which could get bigger and bigger.

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