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'She's a serious operator' - The remarkable impact of Cork's young dual star over the past year
Saoirse Noonan has been an absolute revelation for Ephie Fitzgerald’s Rebels.

1-2 IN CORK’S All-Ireland senior championship opener win against Cavan on Saturday, two goals in City’s Women’s National League victory over Kilkenny on Sunday; all in a weekend’s work for Saoirse Noonan.

Saoirse Noonan Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Saoirse Noonan. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

It’s hard to believe that it was just last summer when the prodigiously talented dual star burst onto the senior inter-county ladies football scene. Noonan almost immediately earned herself the title of “super sub,” firing a 5-11 total in six championship matches from the bench.

Still only 20 — and recently-turned it at that — the Nemo Rangers sharpshooter has graduated to the starting line-up this summer, with her impact being felt more and more with each and every outing.

“She’s serious,” as Rebels manager Ephie Fitzgerald told The42 at the recent championship launch. “There’s no point in talking, she’s a serious operator.

“What I love about her is she’s so cool, under pressure particularly. Nothing seems to faze her. She’s a very quiet girl, she’s very unassuming. There’s no cockiness in her. Great craic and that, she’s great with the one-liners.

“We have serious competition for places in the team, it gives us a bit of a headache. But that’s grand. We know that whatever forward line we play, we have another four or five that are every bit as good that can come on and finish the job for us.”

While she’s been there from the start of many encounters this year, finishing the job was her very forté last year. 

Those involved in ladies football in Cork knew they had someone pretty special coming through the ranks considering her incredible underage career, but a message was sent elsewhere as Noonan made her senior debut for the 11-time All-Ireland champions in the 2018 Munster final. 

Saoirse Noonan with manger manager Ephie Fitzgerald after the game Oisin Keniry / INPHO Noonan with Fitzgerald after last year's All-Ireland final defeat. Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

She sent shockwaves around the country from CIT with an impressive 2-2 after coming on at half time. The former Ireland underage soccer international then went on to chip in with 4-9 in four more championship cameos.

Two goals against Monaghan, 0-1 as they beat Armagh, 1-5 (two of those frees) in her 22-minute All-Ireland quarter-final appearance against Westmeath and she fired 1-3 (three frees) past Donegal as Cork booked their place in the decider. 

Not only were her scoring stats through the roof, but her movement off the ball and confidence on it were a revelation for Fitzgerald and his management team. Not only could she clinically finish, she could create; and that was another breath of fresh air in an already lethal forward line.

Cork fell to Mick Bohan’s Dublin in the Croke Park final, with the Sky Blues expertly handling Noonan’s half-time arrival at HQ. It just wasn’t to be at the end, but all in all, what an incredible debut championship season for the teenage star. 

It was a year that ended in personal devastation, however, as she sustained a partial tear to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)  in the dying minutes of Cork City’s last game of the season. Luckily, no surgery was required, but the diagnosis meant four or five months out of action with a hell of a lot of rehab on the cards.

“She worked very, very hard in the gym,” Fitzgerald revealed ahead of Cork’s Division 1 final showdown with Galway in May. That was just after her return to action when she got her first taste of 2019 county football from the bench in the semi-final replay win over Dublin.

Saoirse Noonan and Linda Brugenner Laszlo Geczo / INPHO In action against Kerry. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“She’s really only fully back with us three or four weeks at this stage, but she’s getting sharper every week. It will just take her a bit of time to get up to that match fitness and the physical fitness needed at this level.

“But sure she’s such a good player with such a range of skills that she can go in and perform for cameos at the moment. Looking towards the summer hopefully she’ll play more of a part going forward.”

Evidently, she has. And that started in the league decider. 

Like last year, Noonan was summoned from the bench in the early minutes of the second half — the 39th to be precise — and lived up to her “super sub” title yet again.

She got stuck into the action straight away, combining brilliantly with Eimear Scally up top to really get Cork moving when it mattered most. She knew exactly how to turn on the style and was outstanding in some brilliant team moves, this one in particular catching the eye:

Then came her chance to get on the scoresheet herself, and of course, Noonan duly obliged.

She finished deftly when she was presented with her chance in the 48th minute and that three-pointer really sent Cork on their way and killed off the Galway challenge.

Onward to Munster championship, there was more of the same. 

After chipping in with a point and impressing in another successful substitute feature against Waterford, Noonan was rewarded with her first-ever senior start in the Rebel red against Kerry a week later.

Cool as a breeze, she delivered as expected and accounted for 1-2 from full-forward.

What’s probably more pleasing for Cork this year is that she’s not just playing as their poacher or target woman, she’s out the field further, winning possession and is much more involved in attacks from earlier on. 

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She again shone brightest on Munster final day, starting and hitting an exceptional 2-3 against the Déise, surely cementing her seamless transition from super sub to super starter.

She just loves her football, and her enjoyment translates into unerring accuracy on the pitch.

“In my opinion, she’s gifted,” Fitzgerald echoed his words in that pre-league final interview with The42.

“She’s a fantastic footballer, and a great girl as well. She’s very humble. She’s won more awards than you can imagine, but nothing phases her really. It’s just she loves playing — and that’s the beauty of it for us.”

On Saturday, she again proved her worth against Cavan as her side got their All-Ireland championship campaign up and running. Noonan played 40 minutes from the start, finished with 1-2 and brought her championship returns to 4-8 to 2019 thus far.

4-8 in four championship games. Again, not bad.

As she has been over the past 12 months; going forward, Noonan will be of huge importance to Cork. With Dublin chasing three in-a-row this year and the Leesiders desperately gunning for Brendan Martin Cup glory once again, she’ll play a huge part.

Not just Noonan, though. Several of her younger counterparts have really caught the eye this year and Fitzgerald knows just how vital the new blood will be.

That mixture of youth and experience is welcome on any team, and the younger girls who are “used to winning” work well with the likes of Ciara and Doireann O’Sullivan, Orla Finn and goalkeeper Martina O’Brien.

One thing’s fore sure though: Saoirse Noonan will be front and centre of a lot of clashes, as she has been over the past 12 months.

Their next comes against Armagh this Saturday [throw-in 3.15, Tullamore, live on TG4] with an All-Ireland quarter-final on the horizon thereafter.

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