Monday 23 October 2017

Not true but proud to be blue - meet the footballer who left London home to play for the Dubs

WITH a face full of freckles, a strong Irish surname and the Dublin ladies' football jersey on her back you'd be forgiven for mistaking Hannah Noonan for a True-Blue.

Yet the Jackies' newest recruit is proudly English, has no Irish connections and fell into gaelic football by pure luck back in her native London.

“I was a big tomboy when I was a kid. I had two older brothers and, from the age of seven upwards I played soccer and rugby for boys’ teams," she explains.

"Both their seasons ran from September to March so after that I was impossible to occupy. One of the dads on the rugby team was Irish and told my mum about gaelic football. She obviously didn’t have a clue but he said just bring her and she will like it."

He had her measure alright. No sooner had Noonan taken it up when she was 10 than she gave up all other sports and signed up for the Parnells GAA club in London.

Noonan was soon the only girl playing in the county's entire U14 championship and was good enough to make a London boys' team who travelled to Ireland to compete in 'Feile'.

With no underage ladies teams locally Noonan stepped straight up into London's senior ladies and though only 18 at the time played in Croke Park in 2008 when the Exiles won the All-Ireland junior title - "an amazing experience."

She also experienced All-Ireland club victory with Parnells in 2012 in a team that included Galway’s Niamh Fahey and Cavan’s Bronagh Sheridan.

Hannah Noonan, Parnells, lifts the cup in 2012
Hannah Noonan, Parnells, lifts the cup in 2012

But as a native Londoner Noonan also experienced first-hand the financial and logistical barriers their county team faces and how the transitory nature of their talent pool mitigates against their consistency.

"When I won the All-Irelands with club and county, we became like a family but then they (teammates) would leave. It means that I now have best friends all over the world but you’re never going to build year-on-year with the same squad," she believes.

Her love of gaelic football is such that, frustrated by the ebb and flow of London's fortunes, she eventually bucked the trend and booked a flight in the opposite direction last summer.

"I came to Dublin to play football, literally that was all I came for!" she quips.

"I’ve always wanted to do it, just to try and see if I could play here and I was fortunate that I was asked to train with them (Dublin) very early.

"I took a sabbatical from my teaching job at Grey Court School in Richmond and moved over. Dublin got in touch with me after the All-Ireland Sevens and I was thrown into it.

"My fitness was okay. I trained a lot by myself before I came over because I was afraid of being yards behind. I was far from the best, I could hold my own but it is a huge step up. I’m still trying to find my feet, it’s a huge step up commitment-wise and also because of the competition for places.”

It was a gutsy move, not least because she now pits herself against some of the best female footballers in the country.

Dublin came agonisingly close to winning a senior All-Ireland last year and while they subsequently lost some veterans, have a panel of enviable young talent who have won the last two All-Ireland U21 titles.

Noonan is now living and working amongst them and playing for the Foxrock Cabinteely club.

County seniors like Niamh McEvoy and Natalia Hyland, whom she had met previously on a J1 summer in Boston, helped her settle but she admits the transition was daunting.

“I felt like such a wimp the first day I went to training, it was like the first day at school," she says.

"Don’t get me wrong, the girls were lovely but I was petrified. I was the only one with an English accent, I stuck out like a sore thumb. People didn’t have a clue who I was but it is good now, I’m so happy that I did it.

"Dublin have a great set-up and management. Players can just be players over here, you don’t have to be worrying about equipment or changing rooms, like my club in London, we didn't have a club-house.

"With Dublin it’s all so fresh – new faces, new ideas. Some of the girls coming up are brilliant. You always feel like you have to prove yourself, even at club, and I know I’ve still got a long, long way to go with Dublin.

"But that’s the good thing about inter-county over here – your place is never secure, you have to be competitive every session. At every team meeting I just sit not knowing if I’m going to be named to start, which is a good thing. I love how competitive it is."

The London sharpshooter started six of Dublin's eight league games and scored a goal in their semi-final loss to Galway.

Since then they have won their fourth Leinster title in-a-row and Noonan came off the bench in their semi-final defeat of Laois and final victory over Westmeath.

Next up is an All-Ireland  quarter-final on August 22 and if her sporting adventure has a fairytale ending she will play in Croke Park again in September.

The Jackie's unique cross-channel addition has not yet decided on her next career move but has certainly proven herself up to the task.

“I’m glad I came, it was something I always wanted to do," Noonan says.

"A lot of the girls coming to London are ex-county players and always sold the experience of playing in Ireland to me but I’d always brush it off. It just got to the point where I was sick of hearing about it so I just said I’d do it!

"Everyone just assumed I was Irish anyway with playing Gaelic and the surname. I love Gaelic games and the whole Irish culture but I’m genuinely happy to be English too. I’m glad to be the odd one out!”

*** For more profiles of the women hoping to get to Croke Park in September see and follow their #behindtheplayer campaign.

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