FOR 13 years, 109 caps and counting, Ireland have relied on Denise O’Sullivan being the team’s game-changer, the momentum-giver, the one player who is always just one dribble away from creating a goal chance.
She is Ireland’s answer to Iniesta, the creative totem, a natural leader alongside Katie McCabe.
Stationed at North Carolina Courage in the National Women’s Soccer League since 2017, which has included a couple of loan detours, the Cork native is entering her prime years having graduated to the captaincy at the American club in the season just passed.
She has always played like a leader – and has embraced the privilege of captaining ‘Courage’ where they finished third behind championship winners San Diego Wave and Portland Thorns.
“Before I became captain, you still had a role and a responsibility to do your job but you have nothing else outside of that,” she told reporters at the team’s media day on Monday.
“Now I have massive responsibility. I find myself way more focused and I’ve probably changed a little bit as a person, more serious.
“[But] Changed for the better. I have a lot more focus, a lot more on my mind that I need to deal with. But it is not a burden to me, it is something that I relish and pushes me on to be even better in the team.”
Even though she’s a couple of years older than Ireland’s captain Katie McCabe, she has bounced a few ideas off her international team-mate about leading a group of players.
“I have never been an outspoken person. On the pitch, I go by my performances and how much work I put in and be an example to other players.
“The same off the pitch; I am someone who makes sure things are going smoothly and I take down any egos that are there. I think that is massively important that you don’t have any egos in the squad because that can cause a big rift. And that was my job this year, but it's not only me, we have a lot of leaders in the team.
“I think people listen to me at the ‘Courage’ and I think that is hugely important that you can get their attention. It has been different, and it has been a lot of learning for me, but I'm really liking the role.”
Regarded as a physical league, O’Sullivan insists ‘Courage’ have tried to buck the trend by playing a passing game in the NWSL.
“We won the Challenge Cup but I want to be winning championships and winning leagues,” said the 29-year-old.
“At the start of the season, in the power-rankings, we were finishing last in every single one of those from all the different media - so whatever to them - but we proved that the brand of football we play with the ‘Courage’ is really nice.
“The narrative around the American League is that it’s known as more of a transition game, players are more athletes; I think that has been said for a long time.
“With the ‘Courage’, we have a completely different style of play. We have over 500 passes every single game, we can score goals as well and we can go long when we need to.
“We have a variety in our play, but the way the American League is seen is probably correct, but we stand out as different to all the other teams.
“We’ve proved that we can play really nice football and still do well; we finished third in the League and we will be wanting to push on from that.”
Officially out of season, O’Sullivan is still trying to maintain her fitness but feels fresher ahead of this international window with upcoming games against Hungary (Friday) and Northern Ireland (Tuesday) rounding off an already successful Nations League campaign.
“Training with a team is the best training you can get, and I haven’t been able to do that, but I try to replicate that by myself and I'm following a very strict training plan. I will be as fit as last camp and probably a bit more refreshed, I would say, because when I come into camps, I am coming in [from America] on the Tuesday, playing on a Friday.
“You are not even half-recovered by the time you play on a Friday, so it is nice to come in and not have so many games under your belt and feeling fresh.”
O’Sullivan had a mixed World Cup finals in the summer. Ex-boss Vera Pauw initially played her in a deeper midfield role, where she couldn’t affect the games as much as she’d hoped.
Ireland, though, will always be a more creative force with the free-spirited O’Sullivan playing higher up the pitch.
“I still love to be coached,” she said. “I can always learn, can always grow and always get better as a player. I have that natural instinct of being able to do what I can do on the pitch.
“It probably came from a young age and playing with boys the whole time, but I think other players need coaching all the time. It just depends on the player.
“I am being coached every day and being given really good points, things I didn’t think about before, and especially with coaches who are after coming in: Colin [Healy] was a midfielder himself and have learnt a lot from him.
“He has been on the pitch all the time and little things I may not see myself, he would point them out and give me correction and I think I will only grow from that.”