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'Everything I've done in football is to play for Ireland. When you get that taken away, it's tough'

Irish international Diane Caldwell on the many highs and lows in her career in football.

Diane Caldwell has 73 Ireland caps.
Diane Caldwell has 73 Ireland caps.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

IT IS A memory Diane Caldwell treasures to this day.

Suddenly, she found herself in the company of some of the greatest footballers in the world.

Real Madrid were in the building, as the Ireland U19s team played Spain.

“That was literally the Galácticos team,” she tells The42. “We had an U19s tournament and it was hosted in their training facility. So we had just finished a match. And next of all, the players are walking through the corridor outside the changing rooms.

“David Beckham, Michael Owen, the Brazilian Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and I still have pictures of me with all of them on my wall. So that was just a completely amazing experience, seeing all those stars, my God.” 

Yet despite this brief-but-unforgettable encounter, it was a female player that had the biggest impact on Caldwell’s decision to become a footballer.

At the time when she was growing up, for an Irishwoman to actually earn a living playing football seemed far less conceivable than it is now. Undeterred though, the Balbriggan native was determined to forge a career in the game.

I must have been only 12 or 13 at the time, I think I only started secondary school. Of course, I didn’t really know much about women’s football then. I remember as a kid, I used to write to all the big clubs over in England and ask: ‘Do you have a women’s team?’

“I think my most famous response was probably from [former Everton manager] Walter Smith. Some would respond back: ‘We don’t have a women’s team, but we’re looking into it.’ The likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Doncaster Belles had good women’s teams back then.

“Claire Scanlon had played a little bit all over. She was one of the first-ever players to play in Japan in the professional league. She played with a few clubs over in England — Leeds United and Bristol.

“I got introduced to her, she was telling me all about her career. She was playing abroad and playing professionally. She was probably working on the side as well, not being able to rely solely on the income from football. She was a big inspiration to me. She used to always send me memorabilia and autographs, pictures and match programmes.

“It was a big help to have someone like her doing it and experiencing what I wanted to achieve and it made it much more realistic, even if it was very rare at that time.”

And the pair still chat sporadically to this day, despite usually being in completely different parts of the world, with Scanlon currently coaching in America.

The ex-Ireland international’s guidance evidently served the youngster well. She was already playing senior football with Balbriggan Ladies in her early teens. Soon, she was scouted by Raheny United, and joined their significant contingent of Irish underage internationals ultimately, going on to win All-Irelands among other accolades.

claire-scanlon Former Ireland international Claire Scanlon was a big influence on Caldwell. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The fact that some of that team didn’t fulfil their potential is a reflection of the dilemma young female footballers face more than anything else. Given the lack of funds in the women’s game, properly committing to a career in it is hardly a straightforward choice.

“It was probably seen more as a risk then. Was it really worth it to leave your family, your home, your friends and Ireland, to go and chase this dream that maybe won’t amount to anything? Maybe, you’ll fail. I think that’s what holds back a lot of people — the fear of failure.

“We took that risk, we took the sacrifices to leave Ireland. But ultimately, you get back what you put in. At times, it’s obviously tough for everyone. But I think, in the end, those moves have paid off [for members of the current Irish team].”

Caldwell’s first big venture abroad was on a football scholarship to New York-based Hofstra University, undertaking a degree in physical education in the process. Again, Scanlon provided her with plenty of advice on what to expect, while she had some familiar faces for company in the form of fellow young Irish footballers Edel Malone, Kariena Richards, Kacey O’Driscoll and Marie Curtin.

I loved every minute over there — it’s a completely different lifestyle over in New York,” she says. “It was great — an eye-opening experience that taught me a lot about sports science. It opened up my eyes to that, because it was pretty much non-existent when I was growing up in Ireland.”

After completing a master’s degree, Caldwell left the States in 2011 and joined Icelandic side Þór/KA, ultimately staying there just a few months before moving on.

“Obviously, it was my first pro contract, so I was like: ‘This is the dream now.’ It was a very professional club. I was well looked after. The standard wasn’t great. It was very direct, physical football, so that was why I didn’t decide to stay.”

It was at Avaldsnes IL in Norway, however, that Caldwell got a real feel for professional football and just how harsh the game can be.

“In Norway, it was a very cutthroat environment and it was probably my first real taste of professional football, because it was pressure and you were competing for your contract nearly every year.

“We had a massive financial capability in that club, because it was an owner pumping money into the club and our goal was Champions League.

“When I got there, we were a team in the first division, so not even the best league yet. We still had to go one higher. In my first year, we achieved that. We got up to the top league. We shot up right into the top three or four in my second season.

“So the vision was Champions League and [the owner] meant business at the club and he was signing everyone. He was signing the best of the best, national team players from Brazil, Iceland, Norway, Sweden.

“Every year, it was like: ‘Who are they bringing in now?’ Who’s going to try to take my position, you know? ‘Five centre backs competing for two positions. Okay, let’s do it.’”

colin-bell Caldwell worked under Colin Bell with both Ireland and Sand. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

In her fourth season, however, Caldwell found herself out of the team and facing the most testing period of her career to date.

“At that time, a new coach had come in. I was working really hard to try to prove him wrong, but he obviously didn’t fancy me as a player, didn’t give me a chance.

“I’ve had challenges my whole career, I love proving people wrong and I’ve done it time and time again.

“But as time goes on, you start to see that nothing you’re doing is effecting things. And that’s at a point then where you’re like: ‘Okay, what am I doing here now? What’s the point in me being here?’ So it just ricochets into life. 

Then they offered me a new contract [after sacking the coach]. I was like: ‘No, it’s time for me to go. This season has just crushed me. I have to get out and go somewhere new.’ Luckily then, Koln from Germany came in for me. And I mean, Germany was my ultimate goal, to play there.

“I couldn’t believe going from zero to having an opportunity to play in one of the best leagues in the world. It’s crazy how things can change, isn’t it?”

Nevertheless, the Koln stint would last just a few months. The team were struggling at the bottom of the league when they recruited Caldwell and a couple of other players, none of whom could reverse their fortune and prevent the team’s dire fate.

“The club ended up going down. It was too little, too late really. They couldn’t stay afloat.”

Yet better times lay ahead. SC Sand offered Caldwell a chance to train with them on a trial basis and it wasn’t long before they offered her a deal. It was there that she would meet the man who would have perhaps the biggest influence on her career — Colin Bell.

“Up until Colin, I was kind of playing all over the place. I was very versatile, but sometimes that goes against you. You can be good at a few positions but not very good at one. I was playing midfield, defence, full-back, everywhere. He took over at Sand and he was the coach that I’d always wanted in my career.

“He just brought my game to a new level completely, pushed me, challenged me, but I think the most important thing he did, he was like: ‘Your biggest asset is playing centre-back and that’s where you have to play.’

“In a relatively short space of time, he had an impact on us [with Ireland]. Obviously, it was short-lived and a massive disappointment when he left to go to Huddersfield, but it’s football, isn’t it? It’s cruel at times. And it’s a decision I think he regrets now. It’s sadly one that he’s made and he’ll have to live with.”

And while Caldwell has considerable respect for Bell, there is another former Ireland coach she is not so fond of.

“I had it completely agreed upon before I went to Hofstra that any Ireland games, I’d be released for — U19s, senior level, it doesn’t matter. But the fact that this wasn’t an FAI event, the college wouldn’t release me.

“[Then-Ireland manager] Noel King put a lot of pressure on me to go and he basically threatened that my place would be up for grabs. I’m 17 at this point and my dad didn’t take too kindly to that. He kind of showed him where to go.

“‘She’ll be there for U19s, seniors, but she’s not able to go to this, the college won’t release her, because it’s not an official event.’ And that was the last I heard from Ireland then until Sue Ronan took over.”

Caldwell was promptly recalled after Ronan took charge in 2010.

“I thank Sue a lot for that, because you never know how things would work out if Noel was still in the job to this day.

But luckily, she took over and she called me up straight away. She went over to Boston to scout a few players and at that time, I was still over in America. She was like: ‘I want you straight back in. You should never have been out of the squad.’ Of course, it was nice to hear that, because it hurt me a lot. Everything I’ve done in football is to play for Ireland. When you get that taken away, it’s tough to take.”

Having earned 73 caps to date, Caldwell has certainly made up for lost time.

“It could have been more [caps] if it hadn’t been for Noel King. That’s life and you learn from it,” she adds.

Now 31, Caldwell remains immersed in football. She believes the current Irish team is the most talented she has ever worked with and says that the group have a “better chance than ever to achieve something”. In addition to taking regular German lessons, she also recently completed her Uefa B coaching licence with the Football Association of Ireland. Last month, she made a landmark 80th appearance for Sand and continues to enjoy life there.

She hasn’t been back in Ireland on a permanent basis since leaving as a teenager in 2006, and while playing abroad is increasingly commonplace, as evidenced by the fact that there are just eight home-based players in Vera Pauw’s latest squad, it was not always the case, particularly when it came to venturing beyond Britain. So Caldwell, in that sense, can be considered somewhat of a trailblazer in Irish football.

“It wasn’t necessarily that I loved travelling,” she explains. “That’s a nice part of it, but my main goal was always to push myself, put myself in an environment that’s not comfortable and that will challenge me to grow as a player. I realised pretty early on that I needed to leave Ireland to do that.”

We thought there might be a post-World Cup comedown, but then Saracens went and Saracened. Andy Dunne joins Sean Farrell and Gavan Casey as the pod segues from the international to club season.


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Paul Fennessy

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