The clock is ticking down in Ireland’s final group game of the team’s first-ever Women’s World Cup, and Vera Pauw’s charges need a goal, something to snatch a win in order to progress to the knock-out phase.
The ball drops to Cork woman Megan Connolly, and as she fizzes a shot towards the goal, and destiny, her mind bizarrely swings to... how she could have been doing ballet instead?
Well, that last bit is unlikely. According to Megan’s father, Mick, who also coached her at junior level for years, it was always going to be soccer.
“I had her swimming, doing ballet, dance — she was crap in all of them!” he laughs.
But when it came to soccer, she excelled, and just as well. Megan, more recently of Brighton in the Women’s Super League (WSL) in England but initially of College Corinthians in Douglas in Cork, is one member of a squad that has already made history by making it to this year’s tournament in Australia and New Zealand.
Mick, the proud father, and former coach, will be there, as will other members of her family. As with the team itself, it’s been a journey.
“To go from U6 at Corinthians to the World Cup at 26, 20 years later in a World Cup in your loved sport,” Mick says, “that is the thing for her and her family.”
When Ireland start their campaign this Thursday against Australia, one of the tournament favourites, it will be a landmark fixture for Irish women’s football and the culmination of years of dedication, development, and hard work at clubs all around the country and beyond.
Megan, Amber Barrett, Katie McCabe — they all started somewhere, taken to training sessions and matches by mothers and fathers, tagging along with siblings, finding their own way.
Already, many of those clubs are seeing a big increase in the number of girls looking to join for the coming season, amid hopes that we could be set for another Italia 90 moment.
At Corinthians, they’re getting ready. Colm O’Duibhir, schoolgirls coordinator at the club, has seen firsthand the boom in girls' football in recent years and the parallel success of the
international side, with Megan at its core.
“I don’t think we can overestimate the excitement around the World Cup and the interest around it,” he says.
“We are doing open sessions, match parties to coincide with the matches and I think that social element is important, to bring the girls together to watch the match in the weeks ahead.
“With Megan [involved], it makes it more real, it just brings it home that that can happen, that the girl who comes up and plays at five years of age at Corinthians Park — or any grassroots club — can continue with it and play at an elite level. Others can say ‘I know that girl, she was here’, you know their pictures, and to know she has played the same pitches, her jersey is up at the clubhouse, she has handed out awards — it is inspiring to everybody.”
Megan, originally from Turners Cross, began playing the boys and then started playing with Corinthians Girls at the age of eight. In 2014, she was a member of the College Corinthians senior women’s team that won the Women’s Munster Senior Cup. Her father, Mick, was the coach.
“Myself and her brother [Luke, who has played Gaelic football for Cork] used to absolutely pulverise her in goals in the garden,” Mick laughs.
In fact, despite playing virtually every position in her career bar goalkeeper, Megan always wanted to play between the sticks when she was younger.
“I had to get her Peter Cech [ex-Chelsea goalkeeper] gloves, Peter Cech tops, everything,” Mick recalls. “I said not a hope was she going in goal.”
That decision was made with a team in mind, and to accommodate other players, but it’s fair to say it has worked out.
Megan recently told the Echo: “I played with the boys for four or five years at Corinthians and then it got to a point where I had to go play with a girls’ team. You couldn’t play with the boys anymore. They just wouldn’t let you. Obviously, my dad set up the U12s team at Corinthians. Put up flyers. Put on trials. Over 100 girls came.
“He kept the same team throughout. Without him, I wouldn’t be here. He gave me that ability to keep playing when there weren’t that many local opportunities and to play at a team and club that I really love.”
Now the final squad has been announced, all focus has turned to what will happen in the coming weeks — and whether the excitement surrounding the World Cup will result in a surge of new players taking up soccer and joining girls' teams.
A fortnight out from the opening match against Australia, a summer camp at Corinthians saw plenty of young players out, being put through their paces by others just a few years older than them, but already well-schooled in training drills and tactics. Among them was Mary O’Sullivan, an U16 player who, during Transition Year, began to get involved in coaching and refereeing.
Her mum, Niamh, first brought Mary’s older sister, Sadbh, to train at Corinthians.
“When I was younger I was playing Gaelic football, gymnastics and dance — soccer has been the one that stood out to me most and it’s the only one I am doing now,” Mary says.
Sure enough, she has met Megan previously at the club and had photos taken with her. It has proved a longstanding inspiration.
“Seeing this women’s Irish team going so far is so encouraging to us and to me personally,” Mary says. “It has inspired me to go further in soccer, I feel like I can relate to some of the players, like Denise O’Sullivan as captain — I am a captain, and Megan with College Corinthians, that is a close connection. To see the team progress so much in the qualifiers, it makes me want to go further.”
Another player up at Corinthians to see some of the younger girls being put through their paces is Isabelle O’Connor.
At just 14, she is already a prolific goalscorer for the club at various levels and also played for Cork in the prestigious Gaynor Cup this year. Her father, Cian, coaches four different teams at the club, where her brother is also a player.
Isabelle also mentions the Megan factor: “From a personal level and a Corinthians level... for my birthday last year we went to see Megan play WSL with Brighton and she is a huge attraction for us all in Corinthians — a girl who played on the same pitches and has done this extraordinary thing... but also the Irish national team, so many girls have their Megan Connolly. I was talking to a girl last night from Donegal and she said Amber Barrett played for her club and they are hugely getting behind her and everyone is united behind her. That player, from their team and their club — everyone is an inspiration.”
Sarah Scanlon, coach of the U10s at Corinthians, remembers when she started playing soccer for her native Crosshaven, where her father was a coach and where, for years, she played with boys teams.
“I don’t know that [the other teams] would have laughed at us but they laughed at the boys for having us [girls] on the team,” she says. “I would nearly use that to spur me on.”
And it did, but the other girl left the team, telling Sarah, “I can’t be listening to that”.
Sarah’s own children now play with Corinthians, including her daughter, Caoimhe, with the U10s. Sarah can see the need for more women coaches, more girls who stay the course — particularly when they hit their teens.
This is a problem. According to Sport Ireland, there has been a pattern of girls dropping out at second level with evidence suggesting participation plummets during adolescence with just 7% of girls aged 14-15 years meeting recommended physical activity levels.
The current surge in interest in soccer among pre-teen and teenage girls has been enthusiastically welcomed by those working in the sport, but many are mindful of the challenges of retaining players through the various age grades.
According to Sarah Scanlon: “I definitely find at secondary school it is nearly ‘pick your sport’ and huge numbers of girls are dropping out at secondary school because they are focusing on their academic side. You notice it. My niece is playing, she is going into third year, I am saying ‘you need to keep up your sport, exercise, mental health time, I know you need good marks but you have to keep it up’.”
Sarah regrets not playing more sport during her own teenage years, but sees this latest generation sticking with it in greater numbers. For her, it may be a case of changing perceptions.
“Is it that [girls] just go, ‘no, we are now academic’? And the boys go, ‘I can make it, I need to stick with this’?”
With the World Cup likely to be a national obsession in the coming weeks, it’s important to remember the effort and sacrifices being made at clubs all over the country, and the distance still to travel.
A recent clip on social media showed the taking of a corner at a Cork City women’s game being delayed because a toddler had wandered off with the corner flag.
While everyone can see the funny side and no-one wants to be too po-faced about it, it is hard to imagine something similar happening at even the most ramshackle League of Ireland ground.
According to Sarah Scanlon: “If it was a men’s match that would not have happened.”
The women’s game will consume us all for much of the next month. Ireland have a very difficult group and some interviewees are realistic about their prospects.
But the way the team navigated the qualifiers shows that maybe, just maybe, a tilt at second place in the group is a possibility.
According to Mick Connolly: “Vera has put that bond between the country and the team. Now any team that goes to a women’s soccer match goes away smiling.”
Sarah Scanlon expects huge numbers of new young players signing up in September with clubs, and this in turn can help with the pull of volunteers, who in turn can become coaches.
Colm O’Duibhir says: “My judge of success is when we have a parent who played as an adult with Corinthians coaching her daughter as a U5 or in the academy — that is the full life cycle you want to get to.”
The World Cup can help, he believes, describing it as “a dawn”.
“It is a small thing but yesterday I was driving to Dublin and I saw a big Sky [Sports] poster, it had the word ‘Believe’, a huge poster with a couple of the women players. The huge excitement about the women’s game does filter down.”
All those years on from Italia 90, maybe the nation can get ready to hold its breath all over again.