From exhilarating highs to gut-wrenching lows: 2018, the year A Star Was Born

From a dream debut and huge championship to a devastating injury, Saoirse Noonan had a whirlwind 2018.

A DEVASTATING END to an unforgettable year.

Saoirse Noonan with manger manager Ephie Fitzgerald after the game The highs and the lows: Saoirse Noonan. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

2018 was pretty much the stuff of dreams for Saoirse Noonan. The 18-year-old sensation well and truly announced her arrival on the senior inter-county stage, earning the deserved title of ‘super sub’ right from her Cork debut to the All-Ireland final.

All the while, she was juggling a dual career as she played top-level soccer for Cork City and completed her Leaving Cert, among much, much more.

Like in anything in life, there were exhilarating highs throughout, along with gut-wrenching lows. A first-ever All-Ireland final loss for Cork in Croke Park was understandably a significant low, but that’s part and parcel of sport.

You pick yourself up and you go again.

With her full focus returning to soccer after balancing dual duties at the highest level for so long, Noonan was determined to finish 2018 on a high. Unfortunately, the polar opposite happened in the last five minutes or so of Cork City’s final game of the season.

“The pain was just so bad… just throbbing,” she recalls. “The first thought was, ‘Oh my God, it’s my ACL.’”

In the seconds prior, she had kicked the ball around a Peamount defender, chased it down and went to kick it again, but her knee jarred and she landed awkwardly on it. 

“When I went home, it kind of started easing out and I was like, ‘It’s not my ACL, it’s not my ACL, it can’t be, it can’t be,’” she continues. “I kept trying to tell myself that it wasn’t.”

Despite the quiet words with herself and all the hoping though, it was the dreaded cruciate injury. The MRI scan revealed a partial tear to the ACL, the diagnosis leading to four to five months out of action but luckily, no surgery required as of now.

Understandably, it’s tough.

“Going from training every day and with people every single second to literally just going to the gym by myself: it’s so weird. I can’t… well, not that I can’t complain but it couldn’t have happened at a better time for me,” she adds, finding some light in a bad situation.

It is the off-season so of course, she’s pleased not to be missing out on too much. But while her teams are coming back together and preparing for 2019, she’s alone.

Saoirse Noonan and Catherine Cronin Lining out with Cork City in 2017. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It’s draining at the moment, it’s frustrating. I’m literally by myself in the gym so it’s lonely in a way. As I said to you before, I used to hate running. But now I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I need to run… why can’t I?’

“There are days when it’s feeling so much better but then, last week, for instance I couldn’t walk on it properly and was in pain every day. It felt like I was back to square one.”

While she did suffer a nasty ankle injury before the 2015 Uefa U17 European Championships in Iceland, she managed it between crutches and machines, and played through the pain. So it comes as a first serious, long-term injury for the rising star.

“This is different. I actually can’t play,” she frowns, before setting her stall with the aim to be back in action after one or two Lidl Ladies National Football League games.

As she detailed in her weekly columns for The42 this summer, Noonan’s schedule was beyond hectic between Gaelic football, soccer, club, county, school and other aspects of her personal life. To go from training six days a week to this is a huge change.

“It’s such a different life for now,” the now-Business Studies student in Cork Institute of Technology concedes. “It’s so much more toned down. Some days I just go to college, go to the gym, come home and study. It’s just a different lifestyle.

“At the start, I was like, ‘Oh my God this is great, I’m able to have a life, I’m able to do things,’ but now I’m sick of it. I can’t wait to get back.”

The Nemo Rangers forward is staying positive though, spurred on by the support of those around her. She looks at those worse off too, and that puts everything into perspective. For example, someone she knows recently got sick and was told he can never play sport again. “I have to stop complaining, it’s not the end of the world,” she smiles.

She’ll pick herself up and she’ll go again.

The memories of 2018 will undoubtedly drive her on through the darker times. Looking back through the past few months, Noonan is more than happy to delve deeper into the better times, her sheer enthusiasm shining through as maps out a whirlwind year.

She’s delighted she completely bought into Gaelic football for the summer, joining Ephie Fitzgerald’s Cork squad shortly before her Leaving Cert and the Munster championship.

Saoirse Noonan celebrates scoring a goal Celebrating scoring one of many goals. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

The multiple All-Ireland winner had powered up the Rebels’ underage ranks but had to delay her transition to the senior set-up earlier in the year because of soccer. A hugely talented Ireland international, she had to wait until her commitments with the U19s finished.

Hesitant at first about coming into a bunch who had been training so hard for so long, Noonan quickly found her feet. Eager to nab a starting place, that didn’t happen but the teen was more than happy to play the role of impact sub, one which worked so well.

“I’m delighted I was there,” she grins. “I can’t wait for the season to start now. Hopefully I can be there for the league as well as championship.

“Getting to Croke Park and everything after it, even though we lost… it’s an experience I don’t think anyone can ever take off me or change. I just want that to happen next year but to be involved for longer.”

Her arrival on the senior inter-county scene came on 23 June at CIT. Munster final day against Kerry, no better occasion. Wearing the number 19 jersey, Noonan was sprung from the bench at half time and finished with 2-2 to her name.

Her first touch of the ball came as she stepped up to take a penalty. She coolly slotted home to make it 3-6 to 2-6 and Cork drove on from there to dethrone the Kingdom.

“There was definitely someone looking down on me that day anyway,” she smiles.

“I think everything just really fell into place. Coming onto the pitch and for someone who’s a soccer player, going up to take a penalty straight away… If I missed that, being realistic, I don’t think I would have touched the ball again for the rest of the day.

“I barely would have came on to the pitch much more. Just scoring that goal and then driving on from there just gave me a boost and a bit of confidence. If I didn’t score for the rest of the game, I could have still said that I came on and scored a goal for the Cork seniors.

“That did drive me on. I was like, ‘I can actually play at this level and let’s see what happens from here.’”

Well, from there, she added a further 4-9 in four more championship appearances off the bench. Two goals against Monaghan, 0-1 as they beat Armagh, 1-5 (two of those frees) in her 22-minute All-Ireland quarter-final cameo against Westmeath and she fired 1-3 (three frees) past Donegal as they booked their All-Ireland final place.

Saoirse Noonan scores a goal On her way to scoring a goal against Donegal. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Of course, her impressive contributions and sheer impact on games garnered a serious amount of attention and ‘super sub’ quickly became the words that automatically preceded Saoirse Noonan. 

“ I always had that feeling that I was going to come on, I just never knew when,” she continues. “When you look at one to 15 on the pitch in every single game, you go, ‘Oh my God, where am I going to fit in here? They’re all so so talented.’

“In the Munster final, I was being brought on as a goalscorer. I think that’s what I was kind of known as coming up with the minors and that. I would have been one of the leaders, playing that role in the full-forward line.

“But coming in with the likes of (Eimear) Scally and (Orla) Finn on your left and right, coming into that game I was like, ‘Right, I have to live up to what they’re doing on the pitch because if I don’t, I’m never going to see this pitch again.’

“I had a good game so I knew I couldn’t leave that standard drop. Every game I came on, it was just my aim to play simple and do what I always did when I was underage: don’t complicate things. If I went to go and try play a different game, it just wasn’t going to work out. I was being brought on for the way I played, so I just tried to stick to that as much as I could.

She adds: “Just when I got my chance, I was grateful. I wish I could have played more but I don’t think I could have asked for more. I can say I trained so, so hard and I was this and that, but so did every other person on this team. Some people don’t even get a run.

“It’s just drove me on for next year. My aim is to get on earlier or else try to start, grab a place maybe.”

Ahead of the All-Ireland final showdown against Dublin, there was plenty of talk around Noonan. The “will she start, won’t she” debate was in full flow, and most definitely fuelled by the media.

Headlines such as “Dublin v Cork may come down to Saoirse Noonan to decide” and “Saoirse Noonan ‘could be the face of ladies football for the 10 years’” popped up above lengthy articles and extensive statistic pieces detailing her significant threat.

Saoirse Noonan Taking on Niamh Collins in Croke Park. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

After all, just five players in the entire championship had outscored the youngster, despite the fact that she hadn’t started a single match. There was a fair amount of hype and expectation, piling pressure on the teenager’s shoulders.

But cool as a breeze, Noonan realises that’s all part of it. With performances like that comes expectation, and that has to be dealt with accordingly. She read bits and pieces here and there, but didn’t let anything get to her.

“I’d read it, have a look at it and speak about it but then just push it to the side,” she explains, her maturity coming to the fore. 

“Ephie (Fitzgerald) said nice words about me, that if I stayed I could be the face of…… If any player puts their mind to it, they can be whatever they want to be. That’s how I look at it. I did read the impact sub stuff, I read into it but I didn’t view on it that it was going to make a difference. At the end of the day, it’s what happens in our camp. It’s not what the papers say. They could write anything they want. 

“I don’t leave it get at me. People were saying will Saoirse Noonan start, won’t I start. That was in my head, I wanted to start but I was the one training every day and I knew this is the 15, this is how we go, we’re going to stick with it. 

“People have said to me, ‘Oh, have you seen the papers?’ Yeah, I’ve seen them but I try ignore it. It was as if I was going to come on and make a huge difference. That isn’t probably going to be the case because we’re playing against Dublin.

“They could have also said that I’m not going to make a difference, I shouldn’t be playing, shouldn’t be starting, I’m too young. I’d just read it and get on with it then, just ignore it.”

Sunday 16 September 2018, the long-awaited day finally came after all the build-up, all the talk of rivalries and Dublin’s hopes of finally exacting sweet revenge on this Cork side who had inflicted so much pain in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

Just as she had ignored the conversation around herself, Noonan brushed the added exposure of the big occasion to one side and just enjoyed the experience.

“It was mayhem, like,” she recalls as she’s reminded of the feeling of running out in front of that record-breaking crowd of 50,141.

The Cork panel The Cork panel. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“As we came out the tunnel and turned the corner, it was just so so big. When I saw the crowd, I was like, ‘Oh my God’. I think a few of us just had a mini-heart attack when we were running on to the pitch! 

“My first few steps I was like, ‘Oh God, I’m panned already.’ The adrenaline and everything…. I was bate. We had to run to the far side of the pitch and I was actually wrecked. When we got to sit down for the photo, I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to play a match!’

“Ah, it was such an experience,” she smiles.

As expected, the call came at half-time as Dublin led 2-6 to 1-5. And as she says herself, she couldn’t have come on a better time. In the middle of the match, it would have been difficult to adjust to the tempo and intensity whereas everyone was starting fresh once again.

That said, it was still a big ask. She remembers bits and pieces from the action, coming on in particular as Mick Bohan opted to switch up his defenders.

“I was like, ‘Oh, yes. This is a good sign, they think I’m a threat.’ That was a confidence boost to me,” she continues.

“I remember thinking, ‘Just forget about every other person here. You’re in a match, 30 people on the pitch, one ball, just play the game.’ But I didn’t touch the ball for like 16 minutes in the game. I think that really frustrated me.

“When I did get the ball, I tried to create stuff. I didn’t do much, I wish I did more. If I had a bit more time or…. I could have done things a lot more differently.

“Maybe the day got to me and a few others. I only touched the ball twice, I couldn’t really do much with that.  They were just in our faces too much, we weren’t used to that. We’ve never played against a team like them.”

Saoirse Noonan dejected Dejection. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It was a titanic battle but the Sky Blues always looked to have the edge and goals at crucial moments were key in the end. Carla Rowe’s 49th-minute contribution ultimately settled the contest, with the Dubs much more clinical before the posts.

She frowns: “It never really fell right. Dublin were just a bit superior than us. We couldn’t get the ball in fast enough. Our forwards didn’t do the damage that we can do, they didn’t give us the space.

“Everything; speed, physicality; everything. They were just…. Now, we need to go beyond their level. 100%, they’ve really set the standard high now. I think every team are aiming to be like Dublin.

“They’re going to take it to the next level so we have to be like, ‘Ok, let’s go beyond what Dublin were like this year.’ We’re going to have to to win. They’re definitely eager for more after beating us. We want to be back there and to get revenge.”

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Back to the day in question though. 

The harsh reality of loss really struck as the hooter sounded at full-time, the stark contrast between winning and losing really hitting home. The agony for Cork, the ecstasy for Dublin.

Luckily, for Noonan, there was a familiar face at hand straight away. Her brother, Eoin, is a staff photographer with Sportsfile and he couldn’t get to his heartbroken sister fast enough.

“He probably should have been working!” she can laugh now.

“He knew how much it meant to me. He was kind of upset and I knew he understood. He’s a sportsperson as well, he does so many matches and he meets so many sports stars but then this was nearer to home. It was nice to have someone to come over and give a hug with a few words to cheers you up.”

Even though he’s 21, the pair played together growing up when Noonan plied her trade with the boys team, so it really was a special moment, even though in heartbreaking circumstances.

She grins that Eoin has always had one over her by playing in Croke Park at half-time in an All-Ireland senior final, and that’s intensified given the fact that he works there every week. But that was all forgotten about.

“For my family, both of us being on the pitch even is something else,” she adds. “Croke Park is the field of dreams, every sporting family is obsessed with Croke Park.”

One thing’s for sure though: Cork are humble in defeat and most gracious in victory. It was a quiet dressing room afterwards, with few words said, but it was agreed that Dublin were the better team on the day and that was that.

The group stuck together for the guts of the week, but then reality hit. And it hit hard.

The more Noonan thought about it, the more it hurt.

“I had never lost a competitive game for Cork, ever. All the way from U14 All-Ireland, U16 All-Ireland, two minor All-Irelands, Munster… I’d never lost. It’s insane. Then, coming in and winning a Munster medal straight away with the seniors.

“My first competitive game to lose was against Dublin in Croke Park in an All-Ireland senior final, it was heartbreaking.

“To think I didn’t make the impact in that game that I did in every other game, that really hurt me as well, a lot. Obviously, there was a bit of pressure there and people were hoping I could come on and lift things a small bit.

Saoirse Noonan with manger manager Ephie Fitzgerald after the game With Cork boss Ephie Fitzgerald. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“We can say we got to the final but at the end of the day that makes no odds to us. We lost, so… it really hurt a lot of people. So many of the girls have been in so many All-Ireland finals as well.

“We’re such an eager team, we want to achieve high and we’re all so motivated to go again. I think in a way we didn’t expect to lose. We know how good Dublin are, but with our attitude and mindset we thought we’d be able to get past it. It just wasn’t enough on the day and that’s just it I suppose.”

Again, she stresses: “Dublin were far superior, hands down to them.

“We now look up to them and be like, ‘We want to be like ye.’ I think it is going to drive everyone on. Everyone’s eager to go again.”

Noonan got back to soccer fairly fast. Understandably, she decided against training in the week that followed the All-Ireland final loss. The thoughts of even lacing her boots was just too much.

The following Saturday though, Cork City were in action against Shelbourne and she was happy to shift her attention elsewhere.

“That was another way to brush it to the side again, I was like, ‘Ok, I have to focus on soccer now for the rest of the season.’ In a way I was lucky I had it because if I didn’t I would have been down in the dumps or whatever.

“Then, we went on to win the C county with Nemo. It wasn’t as if we lost the All-Ireland and I stopped playing. I had more things to focus on and achieve myself and for my teams. It’s weird, you try forget about it and then it just hits you. It effects you big time.”

While she is nursing that cruciate injury back to health, next year is very much to the forefront of her mind. What will she do though? Will she buy into the Gaelic football completely once again? 

“Of course, I’m definitely going to play GAA this year. My focus was going to be hopefully finish out the season well with Cork City and see where that goes but now that I’ve got an injury, my aim is get me back on any pitch… a hockey pitch whatever, just get me on some sort of pitch that I can play! That’s just my aim now to get back to anything I can really.”

So balancing them both once again is very much the plan?

“I did it last year and I had my Leaving Cert as well. I don’t see what’s stopping me from doing the same this year. It all worked out so I’m hoping it will all work out again this year.

“I’m going to have to be more focused on one of the two. From the start, I think I’m going to have to choose one,” she admits, but is unsure of which will take slightly more of a front seat. 

saoirse Taking a penalty for Cork City. Source: Sportsfile.

“I’m still loving the both. If a manger comes up to me and says, ‘You can’t do what you’re doing’ then that’s fine. I’ll have to make a choice. But right now, both managers are happy for me to play with both and I’ll carry on.

“To be fair, I’m so lucky I have that from both of them. They both understand. They’ve both played sport, they both know what it’s like,” she concludes.

And of course, I suppose there’ll be a bit of college work to be done too?

“We’ll fit that in somewhere!” she grins.

Of course she will. No one better than Saoirse Noonan.

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Emma Duffy

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