‘It’s the right thing for me to do at the right time’ – Dual star Noonan puts full focus on soccer for now

ONE DREAM PARKED for now, “another step in the right direction” taken towards the other.

Saoirse Noonan, one of the country’s top dual stars, will focus on soccer for the foreseeable after making the move to Dublin outfit Shelbourne from her hometown club of Cork City.

Saoirse Noonan signed for Shelbourne last week.

Source: Inpho Sports.

Having been a revelation for Ephie Fitzgerald’s Cork ladies footballers over the past three years, Noonan’s focus is now on pursuing her promising soccer career and breaking into Vera Pauw’s Ireland squad — with the Dutchwoman playing no part in her decision to take a step back from Gaelic football for 2021, at least.

“I just feel like it’s the right thing for me to do at the right time,” the 21-year-old told The42 this afternoon.

Signing with agency Ten Sports Management in November and discussing her personal goals and ambitions planted the seed of a move for Noonan, while she continued to play a central role as Cork City and the Rebels reached the FAI Cup final and All-Ireland ladies football final respectively.

“I had it in my mind that I wanted to take another step in the right direction to get into Vera’s squad,” Noonan explains.

“I don’t think that it was a matter of, ‘Oh I have to give up Gaelic to get into her squad.’ I think I did prove that you can do both. But I wanted to test myself that extra bit.”

There were options in England and Iceland, but the Covid-19 pandemic made them less likely.

Noel King, a leading figure in Irish women’s football, was announced as Shelbourne boss just before Christmas, and he contacted Noonan to sound out a potential swoop.

“At first I was kind of like, ‘No way, like no way. That’s a huge move for me, to play for a Dublin team and play against Cork City, leaving GAA,’” she recalls.

“But when it came to it I said, ‘Why sit around?’ It’s an unknown time, no one knows what’s going to happen next. It’s a brilliant opportunity. I was just ready to explore something new.

“To be fair, Noel was very good and understanding, he said, ‘It’s a big decision for you. Take the time.’ I took the time, thought long and hard, spoke to a few different people and they just said, ‘Look, go for it. You have nothing to lose.’ That’s what I’ve done.”

Making the Irish senior team is a goal Noonan has made no secret about of late. Having been selected for the provisional squad for December’s Euro 2022 qualifier against Germany, chasing that dream was certainly a massive factor in her move.

But there were other reasons, and with the move came a natural decision to focus on soccer.

Noonan in action in the 2020 FAI Cup final.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“A few people have asked, ‘Did Vera put you under pressure to give up the GAA?’ No, there was no pressure to stop playing football, like none at all,” she insists, proud of her efforts through the years in proving both can be done at the top level.

“But getting into Vera’s side has encouraged me to go play with Shels and try something new. You’re playing with older players and players that are in Vera’s squad, they know what it’s about. Right now, Cork City just unfortunately don’t have that. I’m sure in the next two or three years, they will with the talent that’s there and coming up.

“You have the likes of Jamie Finn, Pearl [Slattery] and Noelle [Murray] at Shels; they’re players that know the league inside out, they know what Vera’s about. It’s experience and it’s someone on my back telling me that I need to get better instead of me being on someone else’s back. That’s why I think the move came at the right time.

“Even coming out of my comfort zone and playing for a Dublin team, not just being at home with my parents, driving 10 minutes down the road to training… that was all probably too easy in a way. I was comfortable balancing both because I was near to both pitches, I’d come straight home, have my parents here looking after me. In that aspect, it was an easy life.

“Now having to get myself to Dublin and look after myself when I’m up there; these things are just going to be another step in moving away from home and trying out those new skills.”

Her exciting new venture still doesn’t take away from how difficult the past few weeks have been, departing two tight-knit set-ups on Leeside.

“It was extremely hard to tell the Cork City girls. But they made it easy by understanding that this is another step to get to England. I think every girl that has played at a high level looks at the girls in England like, ‘Wow, can I be a professional footballer over there?’”

Fellow Nemo Rangers clubman Fitzgerald and her Cork ladies football team-mates were the same, and she departs with their blessing, having come so close to coveted All-Ireland glory over the past three years.

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“Of course, it would have been nice to go this year with a winner’s medal and that’s still an ambition of mine. I definitely want to win an All-Ireland with Cork.

“When I said it to Ephie, he was extremely understanding. He said, ‘You’re in your peak years now to progress in soccer.’ Cork GAA will always have huge place in my heart. It was tough, because I do think that team is going to be extremely successful. It’s one season that I’ve just put to the side, and I’m just focusing on soccer.

With Ephie Fitzgerald after the 2018 All-Ireland final.

Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“I’m not closing any doors and to be fair to Ephie, he said, ‘Look, whenever you want to come back, the door will be open,’ which was really nice to hear from the manager that took me in first day. Everything was really positive, that made the decision a lot easier, having all the support from the girls when I told them.

“They know how far I want to go with soccer and they know the dedication that it takes.”

While 2021 is off the table for Noonan as Cork look to wrestle the Brendan Martin Cup back from five-in-a-row chasing Dublin, she’s not putting any timeframe on her absence. “It just seems to be falling into place right for me right now. I don’t think one season is going to change that much for me in a whole, regarding Cork football.

“I don’t know how long it’s going to be. No one knows what’s around the corner and I’m just living in the moment. I just felt like this is an opportunity that I had to take now. It doesn’t come around every day.

“Noel King isn’t going to be the manager of a Women’s National League team every day. It was definitely one that you just had to bite the bullet and go for it and see what happens.”

The fact that she’s not missing out on anything in terms of Gaelic games at the minute has certainly softened the blow as she settles into her new life with Shels, travelling up and down and staying in the capital when needs be.

The commuting will be challenging, she nods, but the extra time off as a result of focusing on one sport will balance it out.

And this new, exciting chapter with the Reds — who kick of their 2021 season against Athlone Town on 27 March and follow that up with a reunion trip to Turner’s Cross the following weekend –  has Noonan raring to go.

“Shels have been just that bit short the last couple of seasons. There’s definitely a title there. Credit to Peamount, they’re absolutely phenomenal and they are an unbelievable side, but with the talent Shels have going forward, the aim for everyone within the team and management is to go for that title and give it our all.

“It’s exciting and I’m glad to be part of it. We’ll just take it game by game and I look forward to playing with the girls in a new team and a new environment, working hard and then hopefully I get my personal reward and get onto an Irish team.

“I’ll do my best in a Shels jersey, keep developing within the National League and trying to perform and get on the scoresheet each game.”

Playing for the Irish U17s with Roma McLoughlin in 2015.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

But what about that green jersey? Just how much would that mean to put that on once again?

Everything, pretty much.

“Since a young age, that’s always been in the back of my mind,” Noonan concludes.

“When I was 16, I got a sniff of it with Sue Ronan, had a sniff of it with Colin Bell… it’s definitely something that I’ve always been eager to do. I do think I’m getting nearer and nearer but now I think it’s time to push on and really try prove myself that I want to be in there and I want to be involved in it all.

“To wear that green jersey, it’s just one that I think every young girl growing up dreams of doing. I’ve done it underage and I think once you get one little taste of it, you can’t get enough. I think that’s really what’s driven me now, I just really want to be back in that environment, in those competitive games and camps.

“It’s exciting and if I do get to put the jersey on — hopefully I do — it’ll be one I’ll cherish forever, and another of my goals ticked off, which would be very pleasing.”

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