Shelbourne’s decision to hire Damien Duff as manager of the senior men’s team last year led to an unprecedented level of interest in the affairs of a club who had been off the radar for far too long .
If Duff’s arrival made a splash, it’s nothing compared to the expected interest from the USA in the affairs of Shels, now that a World Cup-winner has become a Red.
Heather O’Reilly, with winner’s medals from the World Cup (just the one) and Olympic Games (three), 231 senior caps with the US and a host of personal awards, is one of the most iconic figures in the history of women’s football.
O’Reilly quit the game in 2016 but family ties to Ireland, and a recent chat with Arsene Wenger, convinced her to come out of retirement to sign for Shels.
It’s believed that the US-based consortium who recently invested in Shels played a role in facilitating the deal and her home debut for the Reds could provide the biggest attendance for a Women’s National League game.
“It’s hard to put into words just how huge this is. I spoke to her the other day and told her, she could be starting something really, really special in women’s football in Ireland,” says Louise Quinn, the current Ireland and Birmingham star who was O’Reilly’s team-mate at Arsenal for a spell.
“Here at Birmingham, Jamie Finn was chatting about it at training yesterday, she said the Shels girls she’s in touch with were in shock, Her arrival will lift the quality of training at Shels to an unbelievable level.”
O’Reilly spent the vast majority of her club career in the US, bar a stint with Arsenal in 2017-’18, and it was a Gunners figure who put the idea of coming out of retirement into her head.
“I played in Soccer Aid a few months ago. Arsene Wenger was my manager. We got talking after one of the sessions, and he said, ‘Heather, you are very good, you should still play’,” she says.
“I said, ‘Oh thanks Arsene, maybe. I never did play Champions League football and it always bothered me’. He says, ‘You should do it. You should play’. I puffed out my chest, put some more thought into it, and said I was going to start having some conversations. Arsene Wenger was the catalyst to get me out of retirement, get the boots back on, and give it a go with Shelbourne.
“I felt I had more to give, and the project at Shelbourne FC caught my eye from across the Atlantic. Ireland is where my family came from before moving to the US, so there’s a special connection,” O’Reilly said.
“I’m delighted to sign for this great club and help Shels on the journey to become one of the best teams the island of Ireland has ever seen. I’m relishing the chance to put on the boots again and hoping my experience and skills play a part in the pursuit of silverware.”
With an eight-point lead over Wexford Youths, Shels look well-placed to win silverware again with the retention of the league, and they also will expect to win back the FAI Cup after disappointment last season, but Europe is a big draw.
“When I spoke to her about it, she did talk about the Champions League, ‘we can do this, we can get to the latter stages and I want to get us there’. She is that determined and that progress would be massive, not just for Shels but for the whole league, for Irish football,” added Quinn.
“I played with Heather for a season at Arsenal, so I know her well. She rang me up last week, I was in Tesco doing the shopping and I had to put the basket down and go outside to chat properly when she told me she was thinking of coming over to Ireland.
“This was something she wanted to achieve as a player, it has been bothering her for a while, the desire to play Champions League football, and I think that’s a big attraction for her coming to Shels.
“She has distant relations here. She came to visit Ireland with me one time, and she just wanted to play over here. It was a personal thing for her but also a career decision.
“She plays in veterans games and bosses the matches, she ran the Boston marathon recently, she is super fit. I think she’s as determined as she ever was.
“At Arsenal she didn’t always play in the side but she was still the most hard-working on the training pitch, she left Arsenal to go back to the US, she had two kids but she had a desire to play.
“There is no monetary benefit to her being here, she’s not at Shels for a jolly-up, she has a dream that she wants to achieve.”