Monday 27 August 2018, 13:50

Shutout queen O’Sullivan, Wales' unlikely heroine

  • Laura O’Sullivan has yet to concede in Women’s World Cup qualifying

  • Clean sheets have propelled Wales ahead of England in Group 1

  • O’Sullivan tells about her improbable rise to prominence

The numbers - 810 minutes played, 0 goals conceded - would make any goalkeeper green with envy. But while such figures would be amazing enough if produced by an academy-reared star from one of women’s football’s established nations, it is Laura O’Sullivan’s background and situation that make her achievements truly staggering.

O’Sullivan’s record: FIFA Women’s World Cup & UEFA Women’s EURO qualifiers

9 qualifiers 810 minutes 0 goals conceded 21 points won

O’Sullivan has faced Russia twice during her remarkable run and kept out England in their own back yard, earning a national player of the year award along the way. And it is not Germany, France or Sweden she has achieved this with, but Wales – a nation that has never been represented at a major women’s tournament. Now, thanks to their keeper’s shutout streak, the Welsh top Group 1 ahead of hosting neighbours England on Friday with a place at France 2019 at stake.

More impressive still, the 27-year-old has done all of this while playing in her spare time, combining football commitments with a day job for a Welsh apprenticeship firm. And that only tells part of this unlikely and uplifting success story.

As O’Sullivan explained: “I started off pretty late in football and, even then, I played in defence at first. Then I quit for a while because I was extremely shy and I found it really hard to fit in if I’m being honest.

“But I would still come down to watch the team train sometimes and one time the keeper got injured and they asked me, ‘Do you want a game?’ I’ve always loved football, so I said yes. Even then, I didn’t really enjoy it at first – I wanted to be more involved in the game. I hadn’t played in goal since I was a kid, when my brother would stick me in when we played in the street. But over time I began to enjoy it and to improve.”

That fateful switch of position, and return to a game she had given up, came less than four years ago. To say that O’Sullivan has come a long way in the short time since would be an huge understatement, with her rise in international football matched by the progress she has made off the field.

“It’s all happened so quickly for me,” she acknowledged. “It has been one of the best experiences of my life. I never dreamed I’d play international football, so to be part of a Wales team – and especially one that’s doing so well - is incredibly special.

“I’ve also come out of my shell a lot. Everything that’s happened for me in football, and having that confidence brought out by the people around me, has been a huge factor in that. Becoming a keeper has helped too, I think, because communication is so important in the position and I’ve needed to push myself as a person to do the job right.”

Just as O’Sullivan’s thoughtful, assured answers show no evidence of the shyness that once afflicted her, so the Wales No1’s performances reflect her recently-discovered confidence. Now, having thwarted England on their own patch – earning a player of the match award and praise from Welsh goalkeeping legend Neville Southall - she knows that yet another shutout could take Wales to the Women’s World Cup.

“I wouldn’t have expected to be at this stage without having lost a goal,” she admitted. “But keeping clean sheets was something we definitely spoke about even before the campaign began. We were 35th in the world at the time and, against such tough opposition, we knew we needed to be very difficult to break down and score against. Our record in that respect is one we’re all very proud of.

“The position we’re in has exceeded our expectations. But now we’ve come this far, we’re determined not to let the chance pass us by. The game against England is huge for Wales and it has been sold out for weeks.

“We’re still underdogs, given we’re playing one of the best teams in the world, but it would be massive for the women’s game here if we could pull it off. I think it could really transform things. We’re pushing the barriers as it is and interest is definitely picking up. But getting to a major tournament would take things to another level.”

A World Cup debut would also provide a fitting conclusion to the fairy tale rise of Wales’ star keeper.