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'I saw people taking drugs, taking tablets and drinking. I said, 'I don't want this life''

Former Republic of Ireland player Olivia O’Toole talks to The42 about her football career and her expectations for the current women’s national team.

FORMER REPUBLIC OF Ireland international Olivia O’Toole almost never became the star player that she turned out to be.

Olivia O'Toole Olivia O'Toole carrying the Olympic flame in 2012. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

She’s the country’s all-time female top scorer with 54 goals – second only to Robbie Keane’s record of 68 – and has over 130 caps to her name from a career that spans across 18 years.

Her legacy as a respected Irish sportsperson is best illustrated in her being selected to carry the Olympic flame as part of the relay in Dublin ahead of the 2012 London Games.

But not long after joining Drumcondra Ladies at the age of 16, O’Toole decided to take a two-year break from her football career to reassess her choices in life.

She had been immersed in football from when her father first introduced her to the sport at the age of six. A proud GAA man who also had an interest in football, he opened up a whole new world to his daughter by showing her videos of games and watching Match of The Day with her.

O’Toole was hooked from the first viewing and spent her days after school perfecting her skills around the flats where she grew up.

She spent hours kicking the ball off the wall and threw herself into the world of street football.

“In our flats we used to have these poles for the washing lines,” she tells The42.

“You’d pick a pole and if you hit the pole with the ball you were out. I played that constantly and that’s where the best players are coming from because you can’t beat street football. Ronaldo played street football, so did Messi, so did Maradona and so did Pele, they all did.

A 10-year-old going into a club now has everything they need to play football. All we had was a ball and a wall. That’s where I learnt my football, I learnt it on the street.”

But after all that time spent entrenched in the game, she found herself questioning if she wanted to continue committing herself to this lifestyle.

While O’Toole was making the necessary sacrifices to excel in football, her friends were enjoying the freedom of their youth at the weekends, and she wondered if she should join them.

But while some of the activity was harmless and juvenile, she was surrounded by dangerous behaviours too.

Olivia O'Toole O'Toole in action in a European Championship qualifier in 2007. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

The Sheriff Street native was born in 1971 and witnessed how the city of Dublin became plagued by a drugs epidemic in the 1980s. She watched some of her loved ones succumb to the power of these unknown substances that promised feelings of euphoria, and could easily have made the same mistakes.

But she decided to go down a different path in life, and by the age of 19 she had made her international debut for Ireland where she scored the winner against Spain in a European qualifier in 1991.

“You know the juvenile delinquent period, the boyfriends and everything,” explains O’Toole. “That was what was wrong because all my friends were doing that and I wanted it. But when I did it I didn’t like it.

“Drugs came into Ireland in the 80s and it literally got a hold of everyone.

There was a lot of drugs around Sheriff Street in the 80s. I saw people taking drugs, taking tablets and drinking. I saw my friends drinking, taking tablets and having babies. I said, ‘I don’t want this life, I want to do something in my life.’

Although O’Toole never sampled any of the drugs that were in circulation in her locality, she took a drink on nights out. But even that indulgence interfered with her football.

“I didn’t go training with Ireland because of drinking at the weekend,” she says. “We had training Saturday and Sunday and I’d go Saturday and then go out Saturday night and not go training Sunday.

I was dropped for Ireland for that and that was a smack in the face, so I got myself together and went back.

“I didn’t like what they were doing at the weekends, drinking and smoking. That’s when I saw some of my friends going down the wrong path and I turned around and went back to the football.”

O’Toole often had to earn the respect of others on the pitch during her formative years as a footballer. She was the only girl on the Sheriff YC Boys team that she played on before linking up with the Drumcondra Ladies.

She was welcomed by her teammates but sometimes suffered abuse from opponents who underestimated her abilities as a female player. Instead of engaging in verbals with those players, she repeatedly punished them for their misconceptions by beating them on the pitch where it mattered.

Olivia O'Toole O'Toole holding a jersey to commemorate her 50th goal for the Republic of Ireland. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

By the end of the game, she had not only earned their respect, but their applause too.

“I used to say, ‘Keep your mouth shut and we’ll see how the football goes.’ I used to answer them with football and at the end of the game, they’d come over and shake my hand and say, ‘You’re fucking brilliant, you’re this, you’re that.’

“When they see how good you are, then they tackle you. I used to just take it in my stride, it’s where I learned my trade.

They didn’t appreciate me at the start but by the end of it they did. I gave as good as I got. I didn’t just say a player was giving out to me, I stood up for myself. Even in the girls’ game, if you get bullied, you won’t play. The only way to shut them up is to play football.”

This week marks the one-year anniversary since the Ireland women’s national team outlined their litany of grievances against the FAI in a historic press conference. It produced headlines everywhere and the conflict almost led to the team boycotting a friendly game against Slovakia.

But after holding negotiations with the FAI, the situation was resolved and all demands were met.

It’s somewhat poignant that the team is now in a much healthier position and competing for a World Cup spot 12 months on from the dispute. The only major downside to their campaign so far is the team’s casualty-count, which includes Stephanie Roche, Megan Campbell and Player of the Year Harriet Scott.

Stephanie Roche Stephanie Roche is among the players who are unavailable for selection due to injury. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Tyler Toland was also ruled out of the games against Slovakia and Holland due to a fractured wrist.

O’Toole could relate to what the players were alleging with regards to poor treatment last year, and during her time as captain of the side, she relayed several concerns from the squad to their superiors.

She still has plenty of harrowing stories to offer from her international career.

“No-one knows what’s going on, let me tell you. When we were playing, they wouldn’t allow us swap jerseys, stupid stuff like that. The girls can see that the boys are playing and throwing their jerseys into the crowd — we had to give them straight back.

“We used to get handed posters of the game on the morning of the match, that’s why we didn’t get any publicity. I used to laugh and say, ‘What do you want me to do, put these up around Inchicore and come back to play the match?’

“We never got publicity and the people that were there probably amounted to about 70 or 80 people who were family and friends, whereas now people are coming from the country to watch them in Tallaght Stadium.”

The situation has improved considerably, but O’Toole believes the FAI has more strides to take to enhance women’s football in Ireland.

She would like to see more scouting of clubs throughout the country for future talent, including the St Catherine’s club where she coaches the U18s team. O’Toole has identified a few players in that team who are international material in her view. One of them has gone for trials but did not progress any further.

On a personal note, O’Toole claims she has never been offered any paid coaching work within the Ireland set-up, or any assistance in obtaining her coaching badges. She suspects this could possibly be linked with the times when she raised the players’ concerns as their team captain.

Olivia O'Toole celebrates Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“Any grievances the girls had they came to me, I wasn’t afraid to speak up. I think that was a bad thing for me because I think it stems from never being asked to coach the Ireland team, never being asked if I want to do my badges, never being asked to come in and give even a session.

“They ask me alright, but to do it for nothing, and people around me are getting paid.

I was just let go, see you after, thanks for your services. I think it’s because of where I come from because I don’t understand why they haven’t asked me. I just don’t understand it.”

She added: “I don’t get tickets for games. For the Denmark game, I asked a certain person in the FAI and said I’ll give them money for tickets but that I just can’t physically get my hands on them, and they tell me there’s none left. If I was Paul McGrath with 54 goals, he wouldn’t be begging for tickets. This is where the [talk of] equality kills me.

“There’s no equality in football where women and men are concerned, especially in Ireland.

“It’s not sour grapes. I’m retired 10 years, I don’t give a shit. I’m just saying these are things that annoy me.”

(When contacted by The42, the FAI said that it has set up coaching courses “specifically for current and former international players, and it is something that will continue to be offered for both men’s and women’s players”, and that it has “always practiced a policy of endeavouring to assist former international players, where applicable, for tickets to international matches.”)

O’Toole may be retired from international football for almost 10 years, but she still has all the instincts that can spot potential in a side, and she has great expectations for the current women’s national team.

They’re progressing well towards World Cup qualification and are unbeaten after four games to leave them sitting in second place in Group 3 with only score difference keeping them away from the European champions Holland at the top of the table.

They maintained their unbeaten run in dramatic circumstances on Friday evening when substitute Amber Barrett unleashed a stunning strike to clinch a 2-1 victory in Tallaght Stadium.

Taking on the Netherlands next Tuesday at the same venue will be a tricky assignment for Colin Bell’s charges, although they came through their first clash against the Dutch with a 0-0 draw last November.

Should the team go on to book a spot at the tournament in France, they will make history for women’s football in Ireland and compete in a major competition, something which O’Toole and her fellow predecessors never managed to do.

Katie McCabe Republic of Ireland captain Katie McCabe. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

In captain Katie McCabe, she sees a natural, mature leader who can cover incredible distances throughout the 90 minutes. Louise Quinn is an experienced player who can create a welcoming environment for the newcomers in the squad. And Cork-born Denise O’Sullivan is a player who reminds O’Toole of Katie Taylor from her days of playing with Ireland.

This Ireland team is playing without fear according to O’Toole, and she’s a fan of Colin Bell’s attack-minded tactics.

“What I noticed about the team is they’re not so defensive anymore.

“When I played we were one up front, five across the middle, and four at the back. He’s [Bell] playing the 4-4-2 which is an attacking formation and I think it’s brilliant.

“I think he’s after bringing the team on 100%. Even the Holland result when they had their backs to the wall, it’s the result that counts. It’s an absolutely brilliant result and if they can get that on Tuesday, they’ve a great chance of topping the group for the first time ever in Ireland’s history.

One break and Ireland can [score against the Netherlands]. Liverpool did it [against Man City last week]. Manchester City had 90% of the possession but they came away with nothing. Liverpool just sat back and broke, I think that’s what Colin Bell is actually trying to do — sit back, wait for all the pressure and then hit them on the break. It’s obviously working.

“Anything can happen but I think any team you put up against them, Colin Bell has faith they can win. I can see that in the girls from just looking at them playing their confidence is sky high.”

In the days leading up to these crucial World Cup qualifiers, Ireland’s Áine O’Gorman featured in a video reminiscing about her days as a footballer.

While talking about the major influences that helped shape her career, O’Gorman recalls a time when her father brought her to Richmond Park where O’Toole was playing, and was inspired to follow in her footsteps. Her teammate Stephanie Roche has echoed similar sentiments in the past as well, including this interview with the Irish Times.

O’Toole is heartened by their words and enjoyed playing with those players for a few years before calling time on her international career in 2009.

Had she decided to go down a different path all those years ago, things could have turned out differently for all of them.

“I never wanted to settle down, ” says O’Toole. “I always wanted to be doing something, always on the go. I went travelling to Australia and did loads of things because this is what I want.

“I wanted to go out and see the world and I did.”

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