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'Hurt' of World Cup absence and success at Arsenal driving Ireland's youngest-ever captain

Katie McCabe is thoroughly enjoying the fact that women’s football is riding the crest of a wave at the minute.

Ireland captain Katie McCabe with Harriet Scott.
Ireland captain Katie McCabe with Harriet Scott.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

EVERYTHING IS ON the up.

Ireland captain and Arsenal star Katie McCabe is witnessing it all first-hand. Both on and off the field of play, she’s to the forefront as women’s football is riding the crest of a wave worldwide.

The want to get better and better is in the 24-year-old Dubliner’s DNA, and that shines through with every word that passes her lips.

Improving standards both on and off the pitch are hugely important, and this summer has been a breakthrough one for the game around the globe. It’s pivotal that that momentum carries through, and is built on. 

The Women’s World Cup, won by USA in France, was a bittersweet one for McCabe. Obviously it was massive, given the fact that the eyes of the world were fixed on the game, but sadly for Ireland, they weren’t involved in the party.

After falling just short, the wait goes on for a major tournament. 

“Obviously when you are watching you want your team-mates to do well but there is that jealousy too because obviously you want to be there,” the Gunners winger explains.

“That’s what you do. You are a professional footballer and a World Cup is the highest level you can play at so it hurt a lot not being there. But it gives you that extra motivation to get the heads down and work that extra bit harder to get over the line in the next few months.”

With a new campaign just around the corner and Montenegro the Girls In Green’s first challenge next Tuesday night in their opening Euro 2021 qualifier at Tallaght Stadium, McCabe is confident, despite the lack of a permanent manager in place.

Assistant to recently-departed Colin Bell, Tom O’Connor, is the man in charge until the FAI find a long-term replacement, with the caretaker boss on the line once again after overseeing their friendly against World Cup champions USA earlier this month. 

That clash at the Rose Bowl in California, which finished 3-0 in favour of the hosts, was another sign of encouragement for McCabe ahead of the next chapter. 

“It was a massive test against the best,” she smiles. “As a national team, that’s what we want to do. We gifted them a few goals in the first half, our own mistakes, but we put things right at half time and held our own.

a-view-of-the-game-in-the-rose-bowl Ireland were beaten by the World champions earlier this month. Source: USA Today/Gary A. Vasquez/INPHO

“The one thing I noticed and was proud of was how much we held out physically. In my first two games against USA [in 2015 and 2016], I didn’t think we matched them physically.

“It just shows the level of growth in the team, physically and tactically, to hold our own against them. It shows we’re going in the right direction, which I was dead proud of at the end of the game.”

Biggest year yet

Not only is she hoping the upcoming campaign one is a real breakthrough one for the Irish national team, with spirits high off the back of the World Cup, McCabe firmly believes that it can be a breakthrough season for the Women’s Super League [WSL] too.

Everything is on the up; interest, coverage and attendances, and she hopes that that will really come to the fore when the 2019/20 edition kicks off after the international window.

“We did have great coverage last season in terms of BT, BBC and stuff, but I think it’s going even that step further,” the Kilnamanagh  ace says. “England getting to a semi-final was obviously best for the league… but no, it’s definitely going to grow.

“There’s more investment now, you have [Manchester] United coming in, Spurs have come in, all these big-name clubs that have women’s teams now that are being taken seriously.

“I think that’s what’s great about the league over in England; how competitive it is. I think this is going to be the biggest year yet for the WSL.”

With the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge set to host historic WSL openers — and tasty derbies, at that — McCabe can barely contain her excitement when she gets talking about these big games in big stadiums.

“That’s set up to be a cracker of a season already,” she grins. “Maybe yeah, it was planned to come in off the back of the World Cup and get fans in and come to watch the games and stuff.

“I played in the Emirates before the men’s team played in the Emirates Cup. I think the peak attendance was 25,000 for us and then it obviously went up to 35,000 for the men. But playing in front of 25,000 Arsenal fans, incredible…

arsenal-women-v-bayern-munich-women-pre-season-friendly-emirates-stadium Facing Bayern Munich's Melanie Leupolz in a pre-season friendly. Source: Nick Potts

“That’s what you want as a player; to be playing for your fans, playing for the club and doing everything you can to obviously get the win.”

While it’s been announced that several matches will also be double-headers with their male counterparts next season, building on the momentum of France 2019, McCabe is on the fence about having their games as curtain raisers.

It’s a conversation she and her team-mates had a few weeks ago, in fact.

“I think we’re quite comfortable playing where we are at Boreham Wood. Maybe when we start selling out Boreham Wood, we can think about playing at the Emirates. But yeah, our home is at Boreham Wood.”

“It’s good promotion for us,” she adds, when asked if she’d object to being maybe regarded as a support act to the men.

“It’s like, ‘Ah, there’s the girls playing. Let’s go see them at Boreham Wood maybe when Arsenal [men] are playing away up in Newcastle or something’.

“I think that was maybe the whole idea behind the Emirates Cup as well; that whole togetherness as a club which is what Arsenal is all about. It’s very much an equal playing field over there, which is what I love about the club.”

Following big footsteps

A big change to back in the day, anyway.

She refers back to an interview with Yvonne Tracy on The42 in July, where the former Irish Gunner gave incredible insights into her distinguished career with both club and country.

“We were only allowed train in the nighttime,” the Limerick native said. “We weren’t allowed train on the grass.”

And McCabe is fully aware of those who went before her, and the work they did while paving the way.

“Those girls set the mark,” she continues. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for them. That’s Arsenal, Ireland; they’ve been through it all.

“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be in the position I am today and I’m very grateful for what they’ve done in the past for women’s football and how we’ve gotten it to this level. That’s why as players now, we need to keep pushing on and progressing for the next generation like they did for us.”

arsenal-women-v-manchester-city-women-fa-womens-super-league-meadow-park With Louise Quinn. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Emma Byrne, Ciara Grant and Niamh Fahey are three other Irish players she’d certainly give the nod to for flying the flag over at Arsenal. And alongside Louise Quinn, the current duo are now doing so after claiming WSL glory last season. 

That brings a huge smile to her face. And a lovely memory to her mind.

“I remember very clearly, we had just beaten Brighton 4-0 at the Amex and me and Lou had a bit of a moment over a bottle of champagne after celebrating,” she says of the day they were confirmed champions.

“We were just saying, ‘We are part of this now, part of the group of Irish players who have won trophies at Arsenal.’

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“It was pretty special for me because when I was growing up I used to watch Emma Byrne winning trophies in FA Cup finals on the TV and so to be able to lift the WSL trophy, the league trophy with Arsenal; and having played such a huge part in it as well was really important for me after having had such a difficult time at the start. I think that made it that little bit extra special.”

McCabe signed for the London side at the age of 20, and found it hard to break into the first-team but a loan move to Glasgow gave her the minutes she needed to grow in confidence, and that was a vital part of her development. 

Not just for Arsenal, but also for Ireland, she says. A really good decision that definitely worked out. On her return under new management in Joe Montemurro, McCabe hasn’t looked back since. 

“He seemed to like me the first week of training and wanted me to stay so I was thrilled with that. I got my head down and worked my arse off really to stay in his team and be a starting player.

“I think he seen that which was important. He’s helped me leaps and bounds develop as a player and a person, and as a captain as well. He’s a great manager and a great coach, and I love playing under him.”

Looking forward

It’s all go across the water at the moment, with the expectations high at the home of the champions after last season’s success. 

katie-mccabe Launching Boots' sponsorship last week. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I think when you are part of an Arsenal team, you set your standards to win trophies every season which is obviously terrific,” she nods. 

“We have a great squad, we have signed some great players from Europe, some European champions, Dutch internationals… we are going into the season confident, we’ve had a great preseason.

“We have our Champions league draw, we’ll be play Fiorentina so that’s exciting. We have definitely gotten stronger. I’m looking forward to kicking off.

“We have a great mentality as a team, a great click,” she notes, and looks back to last season momentarily.

“The togetherness that we had as a group, the confidence that we had that we could go out and beat anyone. Confidence, not arrogance. Being humble about it as well, in a way.

“We have a great bunch of girls over at Arsenal and I’m hoping that we have another good season.”

But obviously, her entire focus is on the beloved green jersey at the minute. And the team that she leads so brilliantly into battle.

“That was obviously massive for me,” she concludes, finishing on the positive note of being handed the captain’s armband at just 21 and becoming the country’s youngest-ever skipper.

“It was a really special moment to lead the girls out for the first time up in Northern Ireland. Whether I have an armband or not, I’m still going to give 100% for Ireland and for all my team-mates.

“It’s obviously really special to be captain and to be captaining the girls now going into the European campaign. I’m hoping to get us over the line to qualify for a major tournament.”

Republic of Ireland Captain Katie McCabe was in Tallaght Football Stadium last week to announce the launch of Boots Ireland three-year sponsorship with the FAI as partner of the Republic of Ireland Women’s National Team.

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Emma Duffy

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