‘It was no use to her playing on the girls’ side because she was just so far ahead’

THIS WEEKEND IS all about the Women’s FAI Cup final in Tallaght Stadium.

Next weekend, it’s the All-Ireland ladies football final in Croke Park.

Cork City and Cork ladies football star Saoirse Noonan.

Source: SPORTSFILE.

Saoirse Noonan could not be happier, playing at the highest possible level of her two beloved sports on these shores, on the biggest days of their respective calendar years. After the 1990 Cork football and hurling double, and the numerous ladies football ones through the years, we could have the unique Noonan double.

“So honoured to be part of such an amazing bunch,” the dual star wrote on social media as the clock struck midnight and Sunday became Monday, marking the start of the biggest fortnight of her young career.

“Cup final this Saturday, then onto Croker the following week for the All-Ireland final. Feeling extremely blessed to be in the position I am. LET’S GO.”

Still only 21, Noonan is a special talent. On and off the pitch, she’s worth her weight in gold for Cork City and for the county’s senior ladies footballers. Her rise to the top has been a meteoric one, and it’s fair to say that she’s fast becoming a household name. 

In early November, Noonan produced a pair of headline-hitting performances, scoring three crucial goals and paving the way for two massive wins in 24 hours. On the Saturday, she fired 1-2 as the Rebels opened their championship bid with a three-point win over the Kingdom, and on the Sunday, she was on the double as Cork City booked their ticket to the FAI Cup final with a semi-final victory against Treaty United.

That wasn’t a once-off thing though, it was just a standard example of a weekend in the life of the prodigiously talented Cork dual star. She hit another double as City wrapped up their league campaign on a high last Saturday, before doing her talking on the pitch for Cork through the ladies football semi-final debacle.

That’s how she operates; cool, calm and collected, and she takes it all in her stride. She’s nothing but unassuming, as many people note when they wax lyrical about her.

As Cork ladies manager Ephie Fitzgerald told The42 last year: “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.

“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.”

Facing Galway last weekend.

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Noonan has done exactly that, as her glittering sporting journey continues to hit new heights week after week. She’s living the life she was always destined for, growing up in a hugely sporting family just a stones’ throw away from Turner’s Cross, and the famed Nemo Rangers club.

Her father, Peter, played senior football for Nemo, and when her older brother, Eoin — who’s now a photographer for Sportsfile — caught the bug, it was inevitable that Saoirse would follow.

Her current club coach and Nemo stalwart, Ken Whelan, remembers those early days well, and has many memories from through the years.

“Peter was coaching Eoin’s team so he’d bring Saoirse down and she’d fall in at four or five years of age, she was playing away,” he tells The42

“At that stage in Nemo, we started to run street leagues, which are like internal competitions for girls and boys. So at six and seven, Saoirse was playing in these but unfortunately she had to play with the boys.

“Even at that stage she was an exceptional talent and quite honestly, it was no use to her playing on the girls’ side because she was just so far ahead. She played in those street leagues with the boys up until about U11. She would have played with boys all the way up. I think that’s where she sort of gained a lot of her talent.” 

It was the same story with soccer. She watched Eoin play from afar, before dipping her toes into it at Kilreen Celtic, again, mixing it with the boys at the Bishopstown-based club until U11 or so

“Playing with the boys was great,” as Noonan herself previously wrote in a column on this website, ”until I got the boot and was sent off to play with the girls. I hated it at the start, but look, I got used to it.”

Playing U17s for Ireland alongside Roma McLaughlin.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Also a talented camogie player with St Finbarr’s from a young age and handy at basketball when she threw her hand at that too, Noonan focused on her main two from her early teens, winning plenty of silverware in both.

Although not a success story, one of Whelan’s fondest memories of Noonan at Nemo Rangers was the “phenomenal” Féile team she was part of in 2011. Alongside her was now Ireland and Brighton & Hove Albion star Megan Connolly, and the pair tore it up.

“Saoirse would have probably been 12 or 13, Megan was probably 14 and we had a phenomenal team,” he recalls. “The competition was held in Cork, I think we were beaten in the semi-final, but having the two of them together was absolutely superb.

“Two excellent, very committed players and personality-wise, they’re probably similar. Quiet, and very unassuming. It was excellent, it was just great to be around those two players. They were exceptional.”

At the same time, Noonan’s soccer career was also blossoming at Douglas Hall, and it wasn’t long before she caught the eye on a wider scale and started climbing the Ireland underage ranks. 

In a snapshot: she captained the U15s, played at the U17 European Championship finals, won U17 FAI Player of the Year and was also nominated for the U19 award. In between all of that, she signed for Cork City where she’s been ever since, one of her most memorable moments there winning the FAI Cup final in 2017.

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Simultaneously, she impressed on the underage inter-county scene, first playing U14 and U16 under the watchful eye of fellow Nemo Rangers clubman Charlie McLoughlin. She really made a name for herself at minor level on John Cleary’s team, her greatest day at underage level coming in the 2017 All-Ireland minor final against Dublin where she scored 3-2.

Noonan in action for Cork last year.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Noonan made immediate impact for the Cork seniors the year later, enjoying a dream debut off the bench as she dispatched two goals against Kerry in the Munster final. 

Ever since, she’s been a mainstay, causing havoc as a sub at first but more recently, in the full-forward line from the get-go having successfully battled a cruciate injury at the end of 2018. For Cork, Cork City and Nemo, she does her talking on the pitch.

“She’s very quiet in the dressing room, her interaction with the players would be very quiet,” Whelan, who’s also on the Cork LGFA county board, nods. “But on the pitch then obviously, she’s a lot more vocal.

“I think she’s been a lot more vocal over the last couple of years as in she’s come out of herself a bit on the pitch, whereas when she was growing up in Nemo, when she came first, she would probably have been the quietest person on the pitch.

“Ephie [Fitzgerald] has probably brought out a bit out in her. During matches growing up, she wouldn’t be a person to tell other people where to go or what to do. She’s sort of come out of her shell in the last couple years.

“She’s been very good for Nemo ladies, we won the Junior C county this year and we won the Junior D county last year. Quite honestly, in the two seasons, she’s been exceptional for us. From a playing point of view, I would think her game has improved immensely in the last couple of years.”

That is the case, too, on the soccer scene with City, culminating in a recent call-up to Vera Pauw’s Irish senior set-up. Although she didn’t make the final squad for the Euro 2022 qualifier against Germany, it was a big step, and came as nice recognition for her league exploits.

“Saoirse has loads of ability and talent, but sometimes we forget how young she is as she only turned 21 recently,” as Cork manager Ronan Collins said as she was named Player of the Month for September. 

In action in the 2017 Cup final.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“During lockdown she put a lot of effort into herself and that is bearing fruits now. She is very good on taking on information on the pitch… we might be ahead in a game and need to close it out and she executes our instructions perfectly. Her role is quite varied but she has fulfilled every task we have given her.

“We have definitely seen her leadership skills grow and that is shown not just in her assists and quality in finding a pass, but in her growth as a player. She is very hungry to be successful and wants to drive her team on to be a success.”

Whelan, too, saw that on a more frequent basis with Nemo Rangers this year as the team reaped the benefits of having Noonan around more often with the split season.

“Normally with Cork City and county, we would see a very infrequently up to this at training which is acceptable, it’s understandable,” he explains. “She’s training twice a week with Cork City, she’s training twice a week, if not three times a week, with Ephie. 

“Last year, we were delighted just to see her at the matches and the odd training session whereas this year obviously there was no Cork, it was a small bit with Cork City but her attendance was excellent at training this year. To us, it showed for our junior team.”

It shows at the club, in general. To have young girls looking up to a household name like Saoirse Noonan is “huge,” as Whelan points out, with her face front and centre in promotion for recruitment drives in schools and the likes.

What she does for Nemo away from actually playing is outstanding, and made even more admirable given how much she has going on.

“We’d put Saoirse out to the forefront realistically because she’s an excellent club person. Our street leagues still carry on today… medal presentations, no problem, you can ring Saoirse. Cup presentations, you can ring Saoirse. Even from a county board point of view for underage presentations, Saoirse will go to those. She’s excellent.”

Best of luck to Saoirse Noonan in Cork City FC FAI Cup Final showdown against Peamount United in Tallaght Stadium, on Saturday, December 12 #nemorangers #corklgfa #corkcityfc #ccfc84 pic.twitter.com/Ov8ddtj04o

— NemoRangersGAA (@NemoRangersGAA) December 8, 2020

Excellent is a word Whelan uses over and over, but it sums Noonan up. Everyone involved in Nemo is so, so proud of all she’s done and what she continues to do each and every week, as she flies the flag with distinction. 

While all eyes will be on Croke Park on 20 December, they’ll be firmly fixed on Tallaght Stadium later today first [KO 3.15pm, live on RTÉ 2] as Cork City face reigning league champions Peamount United in the FAI Cup final.

City come in as underdogs, though will be confident they can end their season on a high and repeat the incredible feats of 2017, while all-conquering Peamount look to make it third time lucky in the cup decider.

Whatever happens though, Noonan’s sporting roots won’t be too far from her thoughts, as a final story from Whelan sums her up in one.

“A lot of our players would go to some of the Cork City matches. A lot of our younger players would go to the Cork games up to this year. The few years when Cork have been in All-Ireland finals, we would fill two or three coaches. We’d normally take 150 kids to the All-Ireland final, but obviously it’s a loss this year.

“To be fair, at the end of the games, Saoirse would come over in Croke Park — win, lose or draw, she’d come over and talk to the girls. It’s brilliant.”

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