Pioneer Olivia O’Toole laid a path for poster girls of today

by Dave Donnelly
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“I actually got that rule changed,” begins Olivia O’Toole, Ireland’s most-capped footballer of all time and, arguably, its greatest-ever goalscorer.

O’Toole scored 54 goals in 130 caps, at a time when the extent publicity for the women’s national team was the FAI asking players to put up posters on the day of the game.

Organised football for teenage girls was virtually non-existent in most of the country, so O’Toole did what any other committed footballer would do and joined a boys’ team in her age group.

From 15 to 18, she played underage footballer with her local team, Sheriff YC, and one morning in the Phoenix Park brought about the classic ‘Irish solution to an Irish problem’.

“When I was playing football, I played with the boys,” said the 49-year-old, who recently took the reins with St Patrick’s YC who will enter the newly-created Eastern Women’s Football League next month.

“I went out at 15 years of age with Under-16 Sheriff to the Phoenix Park, played a match, went up for a header and busted a young fella’s nose.

“He went to hit me and they were all like: ‘You can’t hit her’. That’s the only time they found out I was a girl.

“There was a big uproar and I actually got that rule changed for girls to be able to play up to age 16 or 17. There were no girls’ teams then.

“I went at 17 to playing with girls in their 30s. There was nothing there for me from 16 up. Now they have the under-17s league and it’s properly done.”

O’Toole was part of the Irish side that reached a play-off for Euro 2009, losing 3-0 in Iceland (“it should never have been played – it was an ice rink”) after drawing 1-1 at Richmond Park.

Even then, publicity for the national team was practically non-existent – to see projections of over 5,000 people and a real buzz around Thursday’s Euro 2021 qualifier with Greece is gratifying.

“I was talking to a girl and she was like ‘what did you do when you played matches?’ When we played, we got handed posters when we were stripping for the matches going out to play.”

Like fellow internationals Emma Byrne and Ciara Grant, Arsenal came knocking for the striker.

Arsenal were the dominant team in England but that was no guarantee of a fair wage.

She was offered opportunities to take up scholarships in the United States but, having left school at 13, she was daunted by the prospect of returning to full-time education.

“We were offered at the time IR£150 and work in the launderette washing the senior men’s laundry.

“I was like, ‘I ain’t leaving my family for £150’.

“I was asked to go to America as well, but the thing that I took issue with was the schooling part. To me, that was daunting, because I was out of school.

“I’d left school when I was 13 – not that I’m stupid or anything, but I just didn’t do schooling. To me, at 22 or 23, going to a college, it was daunting to me.”

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