End of the road: Meath's Niamh O'Sullivan has called time on her inter-county career. Ryan Byrne/INPHO
niamh o'sullivan

'I was emotional putting the last message into the group' - Meath's retiring attacking star

Niamh O’Sullivan speaks to The 42 after announcing her retirement from inter-county football.

SITTING IN THE stands in Páirc Tailteann on Sunday, Niamh O’Sullivan knew her decision to retire from inter-county football was the right one.

This was a very different matchday experience for the Meath star forward. The news had been announced via a statement that morning, with a send-off organised for half time of the January league meeting with Dublin.

O’Sullivan travelled to the game with her parents, and had the stage experience of the Navan traffic for the first time as a supporter of the women’s team. The well wishes and congratulations arrived in their abundance at the stadium, and it all felt real.

But there was no sense of regret. No overwhelming desire to be out on the pitch.

“It was weird going to the game, but I have to say, I really enjoyed it,” the All-Ireland winner and All-Star tells The 42.

“I was just happy watching the girls. If I was emotional, I probably would be questioning my decision but the fact that I was enjoying it and I was happy to be there watching them, I knew that my decision was the right decision.

“I was more emotional putting in the last message into the group [chat] because I left the group then and that signified the end, that it was really happening.”

It wasn’t a straightforward arrival to that juncture. A tough call, but ultimately, one she is content with.

O’Sullivan didn’t tell many people, but she had it in her head that 2023 might be her last year. She first met new manager Shane McCormack in October and was upfront about her uncertainty.

The former Kildare goalkeeper gave her time to weigh everything up. Her wedding was fast approaching in the run-up to Christmas, so planning and preparations occupied most of her time and energy.

After “the best day of my life marrying my best friend” and the dream honeymoon in Dubai and The Maldives in January, decision time loomed.

“When I came back, I just didn’t really have the interest or the hunger to go back. I knew that was a sign it was time to hang up the boots. From being away from it so long – because I didn’t do any pre-season – that was a factor. I was able to go off and do things in the evenings.

“Shane did everything he could to swing me. I just had it in my head, ‘No.’ I’m either in or I’m out. In fairness, he told me to think about it again and maybe come back for championship and I said, ‘No, it’s definitely time.’

“I’ll follow the girls as much as I can. I’m looking forward seeing how they get on. They’ve already got two wins in the league so it’s an exciting time for them and for Shane.”

One chapter closes, another one opens.

O’Sullivan, who turns 34 in the coming weeks, plans to continue with her club, Dunshaughlin Royal Gaels, for a few more years, but is enjoying an extended break on that front too.

“I’m hoping this will be the start of a successful journey with club,” she says as the Meath senior champions set out to defend their crown.

Their rise almost mirrors that of the county.

O’Sullivan’s journey in the green and gold has been a remarkable one. She represented the Royals at all age groups, from the age of 12.

“It’s mad, I’d know a few girls in the club being called up to county trials at 14, they didn’t make it and were very upset. I was like to them, ‘I didn’t play much county, I was always a sub really underage.’ It’s mad to think many years later I’ve got three All-Irelands under my belt. It’s encouraging girls to persevere and keep going, give it everything they can.”

O’Sullivan’s first year with the Meath senior team was in 2008. She was 18 years old, and made her debut against Kildare.

Her wand of a left boot and lively attacking threat has been ever present since, aside from two hiatuses: first, to enjoy life as a youngster outside of football as frustration with a lack of game time grew, and then, when she went travelling and suffered a cruciate injury in 2019.

She mentions many great people she met along the way, from Packie Reilly and Ollie Callaghan to Eamonn Murray and his backroom team, who steered Meath from the doldrums to unprecedented All-Ireland glory.

From All-Ireland intermediate final defeats in 2018 and 2019 to victory in 2020, and historic senior success in 2021 and 2022 along with Division 1 and 2 league honours, the last few seasons have been a whirlwind. O’Sullivan makes it sound so easy.

niamh-osullivan-and-katie-newe-celebrate-with-the-brendan-martin-cup-after-the-game O'Sullivan and Katie Newe celebrating with the Brendan Martin Cup in July 2022. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“They just got a professional set-up and we just bought into it. A lot of the success comes down to the close relationship we had with the management and relationship on the team. We’ve had special days.

“As a young girl, I just dreamt of playing one game in Croke Park. To come out playing in Croke Park on numerous occasions, three All-Irelands and to captain the team to our first intermediate All-Ireland final in 2017 was a massive achievement for me personally, my family and my club.

“It’s been an amazing journey. Those memories will live on in me forever. Very proud to have those All-Ireland medals hanging on my wall in my house.”

Add to that her 2021 All-Star award, 2022 All-Ireland final Player of the Match accolade, and much, much more. “I feel I’ve won everything,” she continues. “I’m happy with what I’ve won and that was another thing with hanging up the boots as well, to be able to go out on a bit of a high.”

Aside from the winning, it’s what O’Sullivan and this Meath team have done for ladies football. Both in the county and further afield.

The sizeable crowd in Páirc Tailteann on Sunday reminded her of that, but it’s something O’Sullivan and her team-mates likely won’t fully appreciate until way down the line.

“Ladies football has changed, and for the best as well,” the Dunshaughlin schoolteacher concludes. 

“It’s nice to have different All-Ireland winners because it encourages people to follow their county team. The likes of Lidl and TG4, it’s just been fantastic and we’re so lucky and grateful as players that they’re promoting our sport.

“In Meath, every child is going around in a Kepak jersey. I have kids in school that wouldn’t be sporty and now all of a sudden, they’re mad following the team. It’s just fantastic, and it’s only gonna get better and better.”

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel