** Orlagh Nolan gets away from Waterford’s Emma Murray during the TG4 All-Ireland Senior Ladies Football Championship tie at Baltinglass. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Just over three years from playing on the highest soccer stage in Ireland at the Aviva Stadium with UCD Waves, Orlagh Nolan is gunning for a place in ladies football’s showpiece final with the Dublin seniors.
It follows an about-turn in sporting focus in the wake of that 2017 final defeat to Cork City, switching codes, initially just for fun but the 26-year-old “was never going to say no” when Dublin came calling.
Throughout her childhood, she was back and forth down Stonemason’s Way as, at the time, her parents endeavoured to find enough other girls for her to form teams with.
She initially headed down to Ballinteer St John’s as one of two girls playing in the nursery aged three or four. Broadford Rovers, however, set up a girls soccer team which soon took her focus until they folded, movingon to a successful spell in her early teens with Mount Merrion.
Ballinteer summer camps kept her eye in on the Gaelic front up to minor level but she remained focused primarily on soccer, earning international call-ups as far as the Republic of Ireland Under-19s.
Given those lofty heights, she credits Fintan O’Curry – who managed Dublin’s minor to 2012 All-Ireland glory – for keeping her engaged on the club front at Ballinteer.
“He was great at making sure you enjoyed it; that it was somewhere you wanted to be and wanted to play.,” she told the Dublin Gazette. “He encouraged us simply to go out and play our own way. It was nice when I also had the structure of the soccer.”
And it eased her route back to Gaelic after she decided to knock soccer on the head after a half dozen years in the Women’s National League, first with Shamrock Rovers and then with UCD Waves.
‘We were a Good Team’
“Waves attracted a lot of senior international players and we were mooted to win the league but it never really worked out well for us,” she said of that time, culminating in an FAI Cup final defeat to Cork City in November 2017.
“It was demotivating – we felt we were a good team, a good set of players, but it didn’t work out. Around 2017 was the end point; our manager moved on, a few players either called it a day or moved on. I went back to Gaelic and kind of preferred the environment.
“At John’s, it was run by a couple of the girls’ dads. Very good coaches but it was about being as good as you could be but not forgetting the fun!”
It was an environment that welcomed back some other youth stars with Niamh Sweeney – a strong hockey prospect at Trinity and Railway Union – rejoining the fold and, similarly, rising into the Dublin ranks.
Prodigiously talented Carey twins Niamh and Michelle, both Irish Under-21 hockey internationals, returned this summer, too, having previously won a Feile with the club. All played starring roles in the club’s run to Junior A championship success this summer.
“The credit has to go to management. The team was at a point where it could have fallen away but they encouraged everyone to keep going, stick it out and things will get better. They got players like that back who were really good at underage while the ones who had been so dedicated for so long stayed on as well. That attitude rubbed off on everyone and we have had two really good seasons.”
Playing for Dublin, though, was not really on her mind when she decided to don the orange and black shirt. It came in more fortuitous fashion after she bumped into Niamh McEvoy and Aoife Kane at TU Dublin where she had returned to college.
They suggested trying out for the 3rd level team; a Dublin trial came out of it and she got the nod for some National League action in 2019. It was a meteoric rise after the guts of five years away from the game.
“It was a big learning curve! I had a good season with club and college and you go [into the Dublin camp] thinking, I do one or two things really well. Then you come up against defenders like Martha Byrne or Niamh Collins and think, I am really going to have to adapt here and improve!
“For intercounty, you have to be sound at everything rather than focus on one thing.”
That curve got even steeper in February when Mick Bohan gave her a couple of days notice to switch from her usual attacking mode to a defensive one, sticking her in the half-backs for the meeting with Cork.
“It definitely wasn’t somewhere I had seen myself at the start of the year! I am really enjoying it now and coming to terms with it more and more. I watched Eabha Rutledge make the same move last year and sparked her, playing with a lot more energy.
“Basics apply all over the pitch – your kick-passing and hand-passing. It is just about a different mindset and that’s something that helped me.”
And she is keen to be in the stadium and showcasing those basics against Armagh in Saturday’s semi-final at Breffni Park. She was injured for the first group against Donegal, developing an affinity from her couch with Limerick hurling manager John Kiely’s thoughts on the limits on panel members being allowed to attend games.
“I had to sit at home and watch it. It’s nerve-wracking and don’t want to experience that ever again,” she said, fearful her sporting outlet would be curtailed without kicking a ball.
“There are rules in place and it is a bonus that 30 of us are allowed go to play a match but it is really hard to take, not travelling and you can’t cheer on the girls.
“If you lose this year [in lockdown], it’s not just you are out anymore. You lose your outlet. We are allowed go training and play our matches – that’s massive a bonus for us. Of course, we want to get to the final and push on. But also, we do want three more weeks to meet up and get on the pitch!”
She also jokes about it would have been nice to see the exact trajectory Sinead Aherne’s fluke goal managed to go in having rebounded in from high up the right-hand post.
Nolan did return for a hard-fought second win over Waterford, ensuring a three-week gap before this Armagh date after the Orchard County eliminated Mayo.
Possibly a surprise opponent but Nolan is wary of the task ahead with plenty of homework done on the opposition in the bank.
“We prepared for them last year in case they beat Cork in the championship. It didn’t go their way last year. The Macken twins would be ones you constantly hear about; I played against them with college and they are really impressive.
“Caroline O’Hanlon has been pretty vocal during Covid as a doctor so we would know about her but they have really good players all over the pitch, watching them the last couple of weeks. The standard is really high and a lot of skillful players around the park!”