Over half of 2016 is still to be crafted, but Ireland midfielder Denise O’Sullivan has scarcely had chance to draw breath during a year which has dealt both personal pain and incredible enchantment. The 22-year-old is living out a long-held ambition of playing professionally in the U.S. as she represents the Houston Dash, and the sights and sounds so far have been every bit as evocative as she could have wished.
As we continue to hurtle through a historic fourth season of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), beneath the stats, the tussles for possession, goals and a coveted end-of-season playoff place, the league harbours a storybook. Recent pages have introduced Denise O’Sullivan, one of Ireland’s most accomplished players and a ‘veteran’ of 51 senior international caps despite only turning 22 in February.
A new signing for Houston this season, the former Glasgow City favourite has had well-documented joy and turmoil in recent months, with the passing of her father coming in the same week her move to the U.S. was announced and she was honoured as her national team’s Player of the Year. The hurt naturally remains, but the pen writes on for a young woman from Cork as grounded and humble as a family could want their child to be, while fiercely determined to achieve.
Driven by the uncomplicated desire to play the game so many of us fall in love with from young, but with a curiosity to go after its treasures and the conviction to bring them to reality, the attacking midfield performer has made an early impact with the Dash. Scorer of the winning goal at FC Kansas City last month, Denise had been cautious over whether the opportunity to play for Houston was truly about to come to fruition, having wanted such an opening for so long. After the usual negotiations and suchlike, the final process of her visa application was held up while she took her passport away on national team duty to Montenegro and Spain; that her move was delayed is perhaps in keeping with the far from conventional nature of her year, but she made it.
“It means a lot to me to be here,” she explained. “I worked hard for years and this is where I wanted to end up; I’m here now and living my dream.”
“I got my first start (at home to Orlando on May 20th) and when I was walking out with the team with the fans cheering, in a big stadium, it was fantastic. I’m very grateful to get this opportunity but I’m never happy at where I am; I always want to improve no matter what and I will keep pushing hard to get better and improve my game.
“For me, the big thing here that’s different is the physicality of the league and the tempo of the game. It’s a lot higher than what I would have been used to but I’m settling in well.”
In late April, Denise arrived for her first training session at Houston Sports Park and had her first taste of playing at BBVA Compass Stadium when she made her Dash debut as a half-time sub for Caity Heap in the goalless draw with Sky Blue FC on April 29th. Aside from the sound of her home crowd at the 22,000-capacity arena, she details how her Australian goalkeeping teammate has been responsible for the audial aspect of her time in Texas so far.
“Lydia Williams is usually in charge of the music; she has quite good taste, I quite like her music. We always drive to training together as well so we do be singing our hearts out!
“I live with the two Brazilians, Andressa and Poliana, and two Aussies, Lydia and Ellie (Brush). We live in a private apartment block and it’s a nice place; they usually call it the international house.”
Someone who most enjoys playing in a role just off the front, Denise scored 33 in 65 games for Glasgow City after joining in the summer of 2013, winning eight trophies in three seasons for Scotland’s leading force. Dash coach Randy Waldrum had been impressed by her from footage he had seen and became increasingly sold on her attacking awareness and technical capabilities the more games he saw.
A two-time National Championship-winning coach during his long service with the University of Notre Dame, Waldrum arrived to lead the Dash in their inaugural season of 2014 and has steadily built a team and style over the past couple of years with the NWSL’s first expansion club. He likens Denise’s way of playing to the team’s aforementioned young Brazilian midfielder Andressa ‘Andressinha’ Machry.
Along with Houston teammates Rachel Daly, Carli Lloyd, Cari Roccaro, Melissa Henderson and Amber Brooks, Andressa is a player who has explored her music and soccer sides on here, and in amongst their friendship, Denise has had a sample of her and defender Poliana’s culture by way of samba rhythms.
“Well the Brazilians have a bit of a party in their room every day, not that I understand it or anything as it’s all Brazilian music! They are great girls and I get along great with both of them.
“They love Chipotle over here and after away trips when we arrive home we usually go there to eat.”
Coming from the Knocknaheeny area of Cork, Denise has grown up as the youngest of ten siblings, with five brothers and four sisters. As a youngster at Wilton United she scored two in an Irish Under-14 Cup final and went on to score for the senior team in an FAI Women’s Cup final in 2011, although they lost to St. Catherine’s.
If she was to take a step back and reflect on how far she has come since those days it would certainly be cause for great pride, and she has also branched out a little further with her listening habits since then!
“I actually used to make CDs of all different kinds of songs but I used to like listening to that really fast kind of dance music, like DJ Cammy. It’s so cringey now looking back!
“I like to listen to a bit of dance and I also like a bit of Take That. If I had to say a genre I don’t really like I’d say opera.
“Usually before a game it’s a lot of dance that the girls play. Chi (Ubogagu) I think is definitely the dancer of the team (at Houston); she has some very good moves.”
Of course Denise isn’t the only Irish international to represent the Dash, with forward Stephanie Roche having a spell with the team in 2015. She was the subject of an in-depth interview on this site earlier this year, within which she took the time to single out the talent Denise possesses and the admirable progress she has been making in her young career.
The Sunderland attacker also revealed how the Ireland squad has a strong musical foundation, as the likes of herself, Áine O’Gorman and Ruesha Littlejohn get together for some song and celebration on trips away, with Karen Duggan on the guitar and Julie-Ann Russell playing the tin whistle. Part of the team for almost five years now, is Denise ever one of those involved in these behind-the-scenes performances?
“No, there’s just four or five of them and it’s like a band! They make videos and stuff and it’s brilliant.
“We do initiations now with the national team but didn’t when I first came into it. One of the younger girls, Ciara Rossiter, who plays for Wexford, sang to Justin Bieber recently.”
Sue Ronan has just had Denise and the rest of her Ireland squad together for a Euro 2017 qualifying double-header, which brought a 4-1 loss in Finland before a record-equalling 9-0 home win over Montenegro. ‘The Girls in Green’ cannot finish higher than third in the group, with leaders Spain and second-place Finland out of reach, although their long-term efforts continue to be upon reaching a first major tournament.
In April, Ireland were beaten 3-0 in Spain despite Emma Byrne saving an early penalty from captain Vero Boquete and the team competing strongly. A few days earlier, Denise had scored just three minutes after coming on in the 5-0 away win to Montenegro and she was joined on the scoresheet by Glasgow City forward Ruesha Littlejohn, who is never far from the lively antics when the team is together. The 25-year-old former Arsenal and Liverpool player would be high on the list for players you could count on to blast out an impromptu dance or song and as Steph Roche also alluded to on here, Denise confirms it’s usually anything but serene when she’s around.
“Ruesha’s just so funny and is the biggest messer on the team. That girl’s just crazy – that’s all you can say about her!”
As one of those at the heart of the national team, Denise gets to see the shows the fans generally don’t, as her teammates let loose their musically-expressive sides. When it comes to watching the professionals, however, an X-Factor winner who now appears in Coronation Street was one of the first concerts she ever went to.
“My sister bought me a ticket to see Shayne Ward years ago, and I’ve also been to Tiësto, Calvin Harris and Nicki Minaj. I’ve always wanted to see Take That and I still do.”
Back in March, Ireland beat Euro qualification rivals Finland 2-0 in the seventh place match at the Cyprus Cup. A Reading goalkeeper in the squad had won her first senior cap in their opening game at the tournament against Austria and the 23-year-old would also be the one to line up alongside Denise if she ever had to record a song cover with a teammate.
“It would have to be myself and Grace Moloney. We’re always rooming together and she’s one of the best DJs because she has a mixture of everything.”
Even for those who have been around their respective national team setup for a number of years, when the time comes to pull on the jersey at senior level and step out for that first cap it is something hugely significant. Denise had that very experience in September 2011 for a European Championship qualifier away to Wales in Newport and she would notch the first two for her international goal catalogue, which currently stands at nine.
As she crosses the half-century of games in Irish colours it is easy to forget her relatively tender years. Nevertheless, given the exposure she has had to international football she is a figure who can really help the numerous promising youngsters pursuing their breakthrough, like 19-year-old Florida State University midfielder and fellow Cork native Megan Connolly, who made her first appearance against the United States in January and scored in this month’s Montenegro win.
Denise recalls the scene as the first whistle approached on the day of her first cap and the support afforded to her by a highly successful and distinguished former Arsenal duo in the ranks at the time.
“It was obviously great to get my first call-up; I’d only just turned 17 at the time. I remember my first game against Wales and before the game Ciara Grant had a chat with me on the field and told me I was well able to be here.
“We won 2-0 and I scored both goals. There is a bit of banter (in the squad) – the girls make fun of my Cork accent – but they are very supportive as well!
“When I started with the national team, Yvonne Tracy was in there. She’s retired now but she’d always support me and ask how I was doing.
“Still to this day she keeps in touch.”
Wonderfully, and perhaps luckily for some, football is a universal language all of its own. It is undoubtedly a tremendous help to be able to converse fully with your teammates, but the game essentially allows such communicative barriers to be transcended, at least for those minutes spent lost in on-field freedom.
However, it is often the case that when people from different backgrounds spend a lot of time in each other’s company they will tend to share parts of their heritage. Music is a prime example, but has Denise managed to pass on any pearls of Irish speech to her Brazilian housemates, Andressa and Poliana?
“They don’t know any yet; if we don’t understand each other we get our phones and use Google Translate! It’s quite funny, but their English is getting really good.”
To walk out for Ireland at a major competition would be a feat which would take some beating for Denise, although she has turned out for her homeland in tournament play as a youth. At the 2010 UEFA Under-17 Championship she was part of the side who finished runners-up to Spain, scoring in the group against Ukraine as the Irish qualified for that year’s Under-17 World Cup.
Just 16 at the time, she travelled to Trinidad and Tobago for the tournament, where Ireland’s games were played on both of the nation’s islands. As part of a squad including future senior players like Clare Shine, Megan Campbell, Ciara Grant and Grace Moloney, Denise got the goal for Noel King’s team in the 2-1 quarter-final loss to Japan and she credits that group of players and staff as being like family.
Honoured as the FAI Senior Women’s International Player of the Year in March, Denise explains just how much of a fibre football was in her childhood.
“Oh it was absolutely huge. I’ve got five brothers and three of them are footballers; one of them has a few caps for the juniors with the national team.
“I used to play on the park with my childhood friends with jumpers for goalposts and all that. I loved to play with my brothers when I was young and I think it shows now with how I get stuck in.”
Growing up with Manchester United and Barcelona her favoured teams, Denise was bought her first boots by her dad John, who also used to take her to training. Having played for her local Cork City, she made the big step of moving away from home at 19 to join Glasgow City.
Before that move three years ago, she had attracted strong interest from the FA Women’s Super League (FA WSL) as both Chelsea and Bristol Academy had made approaches. Feeling she needed greater experience at the time, especially before moving quite so far from home as a switch to England would have demanded, Denise found another group she could truly bond with at Glasgow City.
She won every domestic trophy possible during her time in Scotland, as well as making a clean sweep of the club’s awards in 2014 and 2015 as she was honoured by her coaches, teammates and supporters. The 3-0 Scottish Cup final win over Hibernian last season, in which Ireland counterpart and another Cork native, Clare Shine, got a hat-trick, meant that the team had won the domestic treble (also winning the Scottish Women’s Premier League and League Cup) for the fourth year in a row.
While with the nine-time consecutive champions, Denise was also recognised by those she competed against, winning the 2014 SWPL Players’ Player of the Year award. She had first played for Eddie Wolecki Black, before working under Scott Booth, who described managing her as ‘an absolute pleasure.’
As she was preparing to go home for Christmas last year, Denise had told the club she felt ready to move on, with City reluctantly saying they wouldn’t stand in her way if somebody was willing to buy out her contract. Houston was that unmissable opportunity she was wishing for, but her feeling for her former side remains strongly intact.
“The club’s absolutely fantastic; it’s like one big family in how everyone helps each other. I went there in July 2013 and I was welcomed with open arms.
“They text me every day and were great with things like lifts to training. (Club manager) Laura (Montgomery) and (Chairperson) Carol Anne (Stewart) run the club so well.
“I got to do things like play in the Champions League and the club helped me become who I am today. I loved every minute.”
When Denise’s father passed away this March just a few weeks after his cancer diagnosis, her friends at Glasgow had a minute’s silence before their next game. Her former City teammates have also recently given her custom shin pads with photos of their time together, as well as ones of her dad, niece and nephew.
As she highlighted, featuring in notable Champions league ties made Denise’s spell with the club that bit more prestigious and in 2013/14 she came up against Arsenal in the last 16. Current Seattle Reign standouts Jess Fishlock and Rachel Corsie were in the City side at the time and they were only beaten 3-2 at home in the second leg by a last-gasp Alex Scott goal.
It was Paris Saint-Germain in the quarter-finals in 2014/15, giving Denise the chance to play at the historic Parc des Princes, and she rates the win over Swiss side FC Zurich to get there as one of her favourite and most exciting career moments. Last season saw City face Chelsea in the last 32 and in her Champions League career to date she has tested herself against such international stars as Kelly Smith, Rachel Yankey, Kim Little, Marie-Laure Delie, Caroline Seger and Laura Georges, priming her for the competition she now has in the NWSL.
Given her pick of any players (male or female, past or present) she would want to stay behind on the training field for some shooting practice with, Denise still decided to go with someone from her City days. It is the club captain and a midfielder who has represented Scotland over 100 times, as well as coming on in the League Cup final last season to set up Susan Fairlie’s extra-time winner over Hibs.
“I would probably say Leanne Ross at Glasgow City. Her shooting skills are top-class.”
It can often bring instances to the contrary of course, but life has its remarkable way of turning out in a positive sense sometimes. As Denise was travelling with the national team during their stay in the U.S. in January as they took on the seniors and the Under-23s in California, she mentioned to teammate Savannah McCarthy how she wanted to play for a team in the States one day.
She wouldn’t have much longer to wait before hearing from Houston, and although the formalities took a little longer than they might have envisaged, she was finally able to tell her proud and delighted dad that was where she was headed for real.
“It was back in January after Ireland played the U.S. when they got in touch. My agency was speaking with them and I had another year on my contract with Glasgow City so that was something that had to be sorted.
“I was meant to go over on March 12th but I got held up. I had my visa interview before I went away with Ireland but I needed my passport to travel with the team, so they couldn’t finish the final visa process.”
When she was in Glasgow, Denise had been used to a routine of playing games, training and going to the gym, although she got a part-time job in a café back in January. The one-time Peamount United player is currently concentrating fully on her playing endeavours for club and country and Dash fans got their first sight of their number 13 from The Emerald Isle ecstatically celebrating as she swept Chioma Ubogagu’s pass into the far corner at FC Kansas City.
The goal was worth a win and also received a nomination for the NWSL’s Week 4 Goal of the Week. Ahead of joining up with the Ireland squad for the latest qualifiers she wasn’t able to make her fifth appearance for the Dash as their home game with Washington Spirit was postponed following storms in the area.
With the players who will be missing from NWSL play due to the Rio Olympics in August, the likes of Denise will have even more of an integral role to perform and it is something she welcomes. Back home in the South West of Ireland, her family continue to keenly track her progress as she flies the flag, while she keeps a reminder of her biggest fan close by.
“They ring me every day; I speak to my mam on Skype every day and my brothers and sisters all check on me and they give me a FaceTime a few times a week. I think they’re always a bit worried about me over here after my dad passed away, but I’m doing good and they’re glad.
“I always carry a photo of my dad and have it in the locker room before every game.”
Glasgow City club manager Laura Montgomery was one of those emphatic in her praise of Denise, stressing how she managed to surpass their considerable hopes for her when she signed. Along with teammate Clare Shine, she was back home in Cork late last year seeking extra training with Douglas Hall AFC’s men’s side – another indicator of the commitment to improvement people have been so impressed by.
While her reputation is of course continuing to rise, it is heartening to see her hold onto her humility and connection with where she comes from. For anyone in young adulthood, it is perhaps more of a constant path of discovery than at any other time of life, and athletes are in no way exempt from that, despite what some may believe.
As her footballing facts and figures have grown ever impressive, the personal progression Denise has had over the last three years hasn’t been lost on her.
“I’ve obviously had achievements but I grew a lot of independence as well. My parents did absolutely everything for me and my mam’s still fantastic, but I definitely grew into a much more independent person.”
Regardless of their specific role, the finest operators in midfield have always had an appreciation of both what lies in front of them on the field, and what’s happening behind. Denise has a distinct attacking edge but it is about looking back as we finish up here.
The last part of the interviews on the site in recent years has had the players heading to the 5-a-side arena, although only from a fantasy perspective. Given their choice of any teammates from throughout their career, they are asked to select four to go alongside them in this game.
It is always the case that the player can put forward so many more names than they are allowed to, so it is a mere sample of teammates who have made an impression on them. As she was put on the spot, Denise chose from those who have been with her in the years leading up to her U.S. move, resulting in a Scottish/Irish team comprising steel, skill, energy, and of course, entertainment.
“I would have to pick Grace Moloney as goalkeeper – she’s just really good! She’s a good shot-stopper and I’ve worked with her for the last few years so I know what she’s all about.
“Jo Love (midfielder) from Glasgow City – she’s just an all-round player. She works hard, she’s good on the ball, and she’s got shooting skills.
“Katie McCabe from Arsenal – she’s a winger so she’d score a lot of goals in 5-a-side. Ruesha Littlejohn (forward) – I think we link up well and we’d score a lot of goals together in 5-a-side.
“That would be my team!”
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