No more camel rides: Players reflect on a 50-year journey for Irish women’s soccer - and see good times ahead

Republic of Ireland players past and present tell Mary Hannigan how far the country has come, from Portakabins to the World Cup

Are you going to the World Cup, Olivia?

“I would go on a camel to watch the girls, all the way to Australia!”

Mercifully, Olivia O’Toole will have a less bumpy trip Down Under this summer when she sets off to watch the Republic of Ireland compete in their first major tournament, the flights to Dubai and on to Sydney already booked.

She was in the crowd that night in Hampden Park last October when Amber Barrett’s goal sealed qualification, and there wasn’t a chance on earth that she wouldn’t make plans to go to Australia too to witness this team make history.


“I was crying because I never thought in my lifetime that the girls would get to a World Cup. It was the best night of my life - and maybe when we go to Australia, we will get more best nights of my life.”

O’Toole was speaking at a Football Association of Ireland event in Dublin that marked the 50th anniversary of the women’s national team. Also present were three more former internationals - Jackie McCarthy-O’Brien, Linda Gorman and Sue Hayden - as well as one of the current crop, 18-year-old Ellen Molloy.

“This morning was brilliant, catching up with Sue and Jackie, I hadn’t seen them in 20 years,” says O’Toole, who scored 54 goals in her 130 appearances for Ireland.

“And Ellen, she’s the next generation. I told her I have been watching her since she was 16 and that she is a fantastic player. It’s great to meet the next generation as well as the old crowd.”

“I was very shocked that I was the one chosen to be here,” says Molloy. “It’s a great honour and privilege, they have set the standard and the foundation for the women’s team as it is today. I’m very grateful to them as well. It was really lovely to hear how the game has grown from when they started, it’s really eye-opening.”

It’s been a tough few months for Molloy, one of the country’s most gifted young players who was given her senior international debut as a 16-year-old by Vera Pauw back in October 2020.

Last September she suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury while playing for Wexford Youths, and she vividly remembers the moment. “The 23rd minute,” she says. ”Initially I heard the noise, the pop, and I was, like, ‘oh no, please be my kneecap dislocated’. Then I looked down and my knee was fine. I screamed more out of fear of the injury rather than the actual pain.”

“Yeah, it’s been really tough. For the first few months it was almost like a loss of identity. It kind of put things into perspective as well. You are not going to play soccer forever, so what are you going to do afterwards? I was in college doing radiography and when I got injured I realised teaching was what I wanted to do, PE and maths. So, I took the year out and I’m working [in a coffee shop in her native Kilkenny], rehabbing and dedicating the year to my knee.”

While Pauw has all but ruled Molloy out of the World Cup, the player herself hasn’t surrendered hope of being fit in time. “I haven’t given up on myself,” she says, “I’m just going to do everything I can to be on that plane. But I don’t want to rush it. I don’t want to go through this again - when I’m back, hopefully I’m back for good.”

“Vera is in touch every now and again to keep up with my progress. I just tell her the truth about what stage I’m at in my rehab. If I’m ready and she sees that, we’ll just wait and see what happens. But it’s good that she’s keeping in touch.”

Watching Ireland qualify for the World Cup was, she admits, a bitter-sweet experience. “It was a weird moment. It was only two or three weeks before that I tore my ACL. Obviously I was delighted, but it’s hard to explain the feeling because it was ‘agh, I could have been there’. But I’m delighted, it’s still such a massive privilege to have been a small part of it.”

Molloy still hopes to play professionally in England at some point, an opportunity that, of course, never fell to O’Toole, now 52, and her generation.

I really feel our girls are going to shock an awful lot of people at the World Cup

—  Olivia O'Toole

“I am not throwing roses at myself, but I would have loved to play with Man Utd, they are my team. So, when Diane Caldwell went there [in January 2022], I texted her and said ‘you just made my life complete’ - because I never thought an Irish girl would play for Man Utd. The opportunities these girls have now, long may they last, they’re long overdue.”

“On Wednesday night, I went over to watch Peamount and Shelbourne, it was under lights and LOITV was there. When I played, five people were watching us. Seeing all the coverage, all the tweets coming in from the other games, everyone talking about it, it’s brilliant.”

“And the standards now, the gyms and the facilities – we got changed in Portakabins, these girls are getting changed in the Emirates. And the nutrition thing. We didn’t have a notion about that. Some girl came in and had a chat about pasta and chicken and I was like, ‘I eat McDonalds and KFC’.”

“But the most important thing is the respect. The respect wasn’t there when I was growing up, girls didn’t play football. When I walked down the street, nobody knew who I was. But the respect is there now. It is just about getting that recognition, that is all you want. A tap on the shoulder to say ‘well done, thanks for doing what you did for your country’.”

So, you’re heading to Australia? “Yes I am! There’ll be seven of us, including Susan Heapes, who also played for Ireland. We have to get boats, planes and trains, but, yeah, I would go on a camel to watch this team. And when we played for Ireland years ago, we used to say it was like going on a camel - it would take us 12 hours to get to a place when it should only have taken a couple.”

“But I can’t wait for Australia. And I really feel our girls are going to shock an awful lot of people. If we get a result in the first game, we will get out of the group. And if that happens, I am not coming home!”