In the 1980s and 1990s, Dublin was hit by a drug epidemic. Heroin ripped through the heart of the city, exacerbated by poverty and unemployment. Sheriff Street was one of the areas majorly hit, with drugs sold at every corner.
Olivia O’Toole grew up in Dublin’s inner-city and witnessed the problem in plain sight. Had it not been for football, she could so easily swayed down the wrong path.
O’Toole’s career spanned over a 23-year period, bagging 54 goals and over 130 caps to her name. The winger/striker is undoubtedly one of the finest footballers Ireland has ever produced - only Robbie Keane boasts a better international record.
“For me if it wasn’t for football, I’d be in a completely different place. Where I grew up in Sheriff Street, heroin took a number of my friends and drugs hit my family too. I saw people dying from it and knew I didn’t want that life.”
“Football was my addiction. Football was my escape. It was tough growing up but the people in Sheriff Street are beautiful people. I managed to see what I wanted to see and focused purely on my football – it kept me safe.”
O’Toole’s love for football began at the age of six where her father first introduced her to the game. Ever since then she was hooked. She honed her skills playing street football around the flats where she grew up, before joining the Sheriff Boys team.
“I constantly had a football in my hand. I learned the game on the streets. My dribbling, skills and passion all come from the streets and if you look at the best players out there, they all came from the streets. You can’t beat it.”
O’Toole played for the Sheriff Boys team from the age of eleven up to fifteen. After this she was forced to move clubs because she was no longer allowed play with the boys. It was in fact her unique case which ended up in a rule change.
“There was a big hullabaloo about me playing with the boys because girls weren’t allowed to at under 16 level back then. It happened down in Pheonix Park. I went up for a ball and busted a fella’s nose.”
“It resulted in a bit of a scuffle and he want to hit me and my manager shouted ‘don’t hit her.’ That’s when they all realised I was a girl. A complaint was put in and it went to the appeals court and everything. Since then they changed the rule from girls being allowed play to under 17 level with the boys.”
O'Toole revealed how she was utterly devastated at the time because it essentially meant she couldn’t play football anymore because there was no girls football. As a result at the age of just 16 O’Toole had to join the Drumcondra Ladies senior football team – competing against women twice her age.
“I played the last three games with Sheriff Boys and then moved on to Drumcondra Ladies when I was just 16. There were no girls teams for my age group when I was growing up so I ended up having to play with the seniors. I was by far the youngest and it was scary but at the same time I just wanted to play football so it didn’t phase me.”
After taking two years out of the game, O’Toole got asked to attend trials for the Irish National team at the age of 19. A year later, in 1991, she wore the green jersey for the first time at the European Championship qualifiers against Spain. She scored on her debut and Ireland won 1-0.
“I was asked to go for trials, it was over in AUL in Santry. 500 girls came out that weekend and it was whittled down to 200, then 50 and then finally I got picked.”
“I went to the Euro Qualifiers after that, a year later. My Irish debut was against Spain in Seville in front of 7,000 supporters. We won 1-0 and I scored the winner. The thing that really hit me was standing there singing the National Anthem. There’s nothing like it – the hairs on the back of your neck standing up.”
Ironically, growing up, O’Toole had never heard of the Irish Women’s Senior Football Team. She had heard of the men’s but with a lack of structure and coverage, she was oblivious to it all.
“When I was growing up there was nothing for girls. There was no underage girls football leagues. There was underage National teams, just a senior team. The Women’s League at the time only consisted of 7 teams and that was a league in Dublin. It was the only league in the country at the time.”
“There were no women footballers for me to look up to. My idols were George Best, Bryan Robson and Ryan Giggs.”
Nowadays things have changed. The women’s game is growing and with the professional game on the rise over in England there is so much opportunity for girls growing up. There are still life choices and sacrifices to be made, but there are less challenges to weigh up.
O’Toole herself was courted to make the move across the waters but ultimately turned it down.
“We played Arsenal in a tournament down in the west-coast of Mayo. One of the Arsenal physios approached myself, Emma Byrne and Ciara Grant and asked us to go over. Emma and Ciara did. I didn’t.
“I wasn’t going to go over, to work in a laundry mat and wash their first-time’s jerseys. You were leaving home, family and friends for just £150 a week. I just didn’t think it was worth it.
“Now it’s a professional game over in England. They don’t have to work, you’re able to fully concentrate on playing football and not worrying about taking annual leave off work and wondering if you were going to get paid.”
“I never had that problem because Dublin City Council were very good to me. I’m still working for them today. They used to tell me, ‘If you need to do this and that for your country, just let us know a few days in advance.’ I’ve never had deducted pay or anything like that. So for me I was very lucky.”
“It wasn’t that case for everyone. I roomed with Sharon Boyle. Sharon had to take annual leave and was not getting paid for those days. It was the last thing you wanted to have to worry about when playing for your country.”
The game has even changed in terms of the professional outlook. When O’Toole was plying her trade she was completely oblivious to sports science. There were no nutritionists or video analysis. It's frightening to think how much better she could have been with all that information and resources.
“We were just given a ball and played. Now your training session is three hours long. You go in to see the physio, then the nutritionist then the video analyst and whatever. It’s brilliant for the game.”
“The first time I ever heard of a nutritionist was 15 years into my career – all of that was alien to us. When I was growing up we were just told to eat plenty of pasta, boiled fish and chicken!”
O’Toole went on to represent Ireland in what was a difficult time in terms of equality. When she speaks about playing for the Girls in Green she bursts with pride however there are some startling stories to tell.
The facilities and conditions the women had to endure at the time was nothing short of ridiculous. Changing in car parks, getting hand-me-downs from the Men’s U21s and not being allowed keep jerseys to name a few.
“There was never any equality. We had to fight for things throughout my whole career.”
“The men would get a five-star hotel but we would get a two. We used to get hand-me-downs for the U21s. Every single Ireland tracksuit I had never fitted me.”
“We had to get changed in toilets, at the airport or even on the bus on the way into matches.”
So much so was the funding lacking in the Irish women’s set up, they were discouraged from swapping jerseys at the end of the game. That never stopped O’Toole from finding a way.
“We weren’t allowed to even keep our own jerseys. We had to give them back. I used to be sly though. I used to exchange it with an opposition player because I knew they wouldn’t go asking it back from them!”
The coverage of women’s sport in general is not where it should be but in terms of where it was 15-20 years ago it’s miles ahead. In October 2019, Ireland set a record attendance of 5,328 against Ukraine. Back in those days no matches were promoted properly.
“I remember once I got handed posters on the day of the match and I couldn’t believe it. I was like ‘”What am I suppose to do with this now? We’re playing today. This should have been given to us five or six weeks ago and put around the city to let people know.’”
“That was the biggest problem then – they never publicised us. They would bring in journalists a day before the game and what was supposed to be the promotion.”
“That’s why we never had any attendances. The only people that came to our games were family and friends. The most that we’d get was 300-400 when it could have been much more. We were never advertised.”
“Nowadays you see it at least a month before. That was unheard of. There’s still a long way to go but in my day that would never have happened!”
Ireland have never qualified for a major tournament and they came ever so close in 2008. There was controversy regarding the way they perished and O’Toole says she will never ever forget that.
“We had a chance to get the Euros (European Championships) for the first time ever. We played Iceland in a two-legged play off. We drew with them 1-1 at home and then we had to go over and play away.”
“When we went over the pitch was like an ice-rink. There was no way that game should have gone ahead but I felt because we were ‘only Ireland’ they forced us to play.”
“I went to the Irish manager at the time and said, ‘There’s no way that we can play on this.’ He said, ‘The only way this match will be called off is if one of yous go down and split your head open, drawing blood.’
Ireland lost the returning leg 3-0 and any hopes of qualifying for a major tournament were dashed. The Irish players couldn’t keep their footing and struggled to make anything out of the game.
“They beat us 3-0. That’s was the only real chance I had to go to a major tournament and I won’t lie to you, I did cry tears over it. You put in the hard work for nearly three years of a campaign and you end up going out like that. There was no consideration at all for our safety.”
“I’ll never forget it for as long as I live. It was my opportunity to go to a Euros and I knew it would never happen again. That would never in a million years be allowed go ahead in today’s times.”
O’Toole retired from the game at the age of 41 with St. Catherines.
Now, aged 49, she is set to take over as the coach of St Patrick’s YC next month, in the newly founded Eastern Women’s Football League. The Ringsend club will compete in the EWFL following the merger of the two major Dublin leagues, the Metropolitan Girls League (MGL) and the Dublin Women’s Soccer League (DWSL).
A supremely talented dribbler with a low centre of gravity and the ability to ghost passed players effortlessly. O’Toole was a phenomenon.
Many people who played with her describe her as a prime Ryan Giggs.
"If I was 23 now, I'd be playing for Man United", she laughs.
With eight FAI Cups, nine League Titles and 54 international goals, Olivia O’Toole is a wonderful ambassador for Irish football.