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The rise of Katie McCabe, Ireland's youngest-ever captain and world-class Arsenal star

From Kilnamanagh to the world stage, the 25-year-old is ‘a true leader’ on a remarkable journey.

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ABSOLUTELY FLAWLESS SEASON.

Olivia O’Toole — the highest-scoring Irish women’s international of all-time, and one of the country’s greatest-ever talents — needed just three words to sum up Katie McCabe’s simply stunning campaign in the Women’s Super League.

When Arsenal fans started to cast their votes for the club’s Player of the Year, there was one clear frontrunner, with some of the biggest names in world football — Dutch sensation Vivianne Miedema, for one — falling behind this girl from Kilnamanagh.

The 2020/21 season has cemented McCabe’s “world-class” status; her scintillating displays for the Gunners week on week catapulting her to wider recognition and renown, and ultimately seeing her selected in the Professional Footballers’ Association’s WSL Team of the Year.

This acclaim has been a long time coming.

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For those unfamiliar with Kilnamanagh, it’s a largely residential suburb in south Dublin, just outside Tallaght. Those in Irish women’s football circles will know it best as the home of Katie McCabe, given it’s something she talks about so often in interviews, never forgetting her roots.

It’s not far from Tallaght Stadium, Shamrock Rovers’ base and more duly, in this context, the Irish women’s football team’s beloved home venue.

It is perhaps fitting that McCabe, Ireland’s youngest-ever captain, now leads her side out there, so close to home. A stone’s throw away from where it all began.

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Now 25, McCabe was one of 11 kids – seven girls and four boys – in a big, sporting family. Ultimately, she was part of a team from day one, right in the thick of the craic and competition. Her brother is Gary, a former League of Ireland footballer who played for Rovers and Bray, among others.

Understandably, he was a big part of how she got into football. As all siblings that way inclined do, they’d knock a ball around the house, inside or out, with the help of their father, also Gary.

While Katie was five or six, Gary was enjoying a blossoming youth career with Crumlin United. “He used to take me to the field to kick a ball around and he thought I was really good ‘for a girl’, as he would say,” Katie told The42 a few years back.

 From there, she joined a boys’ team, and others at Kilnamanagh AFC and later, Crumlin, soon shared Gary’s view, as her prodigious talents shone through. At 10 or 11, she joined her first girls’ team at Templeogue, before moving on to St Joseph’s.

nicola-sinnott-and-katie-mccabe Playing for Raheny in 2013. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

All the way through, she played a wide range of sports, also excelling at Gaelic football and basketball in secondary school. But undoubtedly, her star shone brightest playing soccer, and she had soon done enough to grab national attention, selected for the Ireland U15s.

Around the same time, she started training with Women’s National League [WNL] outfit Raheny United – now amalgamated with Shelbourne. McCabe couldn’t sign, and play for the team, until she was 16, but was involved from 15 on.

Everything got more serious from there, as she simultaneously climbed the underage ranks, fixture clashes coming into play as she was chosen for the U17s and U19s at the same time. She was forced to focus exclusively on football, but that’s what she wanted.

These next few years were formative ones, on and off the pitch.

In 2013 – she would have been 18 – she remembers watching her first game of women’s football on television. It was her father who encouraged her to stick on the FA Cup final, and as fate would have it, Arsenal won it out. A team featuring Irish legends Emma Byrne, Ciara Grant and Yvonne Tracy beat Everton 2-0 to lift the silverware.

“I want to do that,” McCabe said to herself at the time, having previously had her mind blown on a trip to Arsenal’s training ground, London Colney, and The Emirates, with the Ireland U17s.

The next year, 2014, was a massive one.

That summer, she battled back from a broken leg sustained in February, to shine for the history-making Ireland U19s at the European Championships. Dave Connell’s side rode the crest of a wave to reach the semi-finals in Sweden, only to be sent home by a star-studded Dutch side, led by none other than her now team-mate Miedema.

McCabe really impressed throughout, drawing parallels with her brother, Gary, for her scintillating displays on the left wing. “I mirror my game off his, in a way, but I’d say I’m more successful than him now, which he would hate to hear,” she joked at the time.

Seeping into the national consciousness at that stage, McCabe well and truly made her mark in that November’s FAI Cup final. Her thunderous 35-yard free-kick lit up the Aviva Stadium to seal the title for Raheny, who she also represented with distinction in the Champions League that year.

This kid from Kilnamanagh was something special.

London soon came calling.

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“I am confident enough to believe I’m capable of succeeding so I’ll give it my best shot and see where it takes me.”

The words of McCabe in an interview with this publication shortly after landing the dream move to Arsenal. She was 20 at the time, having made her Ireland senior debut — a player-of-the-match winning performance against Finland — weeks beforehand under the watchful eye of Sue Ronan.

In December 2015, pen was put to paper and a first professional contract was agreed. Given her exploits with Raheny and Ireland underage teams, McCabe had already made a name for herself as one of the country’s most talented young footballers.

There was no doubt she was a really bright talent. She talked the talk, she walked the walk; backing her self-confidence up with magic on the pitch. But this was a completely different kettle of fish.

Legendary Irish goalkeeper Emma Byrne was coming into her final days at Arsenal at the time, so she provided a welcome piece of home. McCabe has made no secret of how much she looked up to Byrne, so the Leixlip native was the perfect candidate to take the youngster under her wing.

Pedro Martinez Losa was manager at the time, and McCabe signed on a two-year deal having turned down Chelsea – the team she supports, with Damien Duff her childhood idol – and Glasgow City. “She is a fantastic young talent, who is full of potential,” Losa said.

Here she was, living the dream, playing for the club she had watched on TV not so long beforehand. She was doing what she said she wanted to just two years prior.

kt arsenal sign Signing for Arsenal in 2015. Source: Arsenal Women FC.

It all sounds so easy. But it was far from that, as she struggled through her early days in North London. Injuries and niggles derailed her progress and hampered her attempts to nail down a regular starting position.

Very much out-of-favour as Losa looked elsewhere, McCabe was left frustrated as her hopes of first-team football dwindled. Her character and mental strength were tested as she hung in there, working harder behind the scenes, confident in her own ability.

In August 2017, she was sent to Glasgow City on loan, where she joined a strong Irish contingent of Noelle Murray, Keeva Keenan and Savannah McCarthy.

Feeling more at home, she thrived, and did exactly what head coach Scott Booth promised when he finally secured her services after previous failed approaches.

“Her technical ability, pace and vision will threaten any defence,” Booth said. “We have some really competitive games to play in the second half of the season and a player of her quality can be a match winner when things get tight.”

McCabe was just that, making her impact felt as she helped Glasgow to their 11th league title in-a-row.

Around that same time, someone else saw massive potential in McCabe as a match winner, a leader, and a captain.

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Her first thought was that she was in trouble.

McCabe was on a family holiday down the country at the time, when Ireland manager Colin Bell insisted on calling her. After her initial worry and pit-of-the-stomach feeling, the question was an unexpected, though straightforward, one: ‘Do you want to be the next captain of Ireland?’

The answer, likewise, simple. Yes.

The same month as her loan move to Glasgow City was finalised, McCabe was confirmed as the Girls In Green’s new skipper, succeeding her role model, Byrne, in the role.

At just 21 years of age, she became Ireland’s youngest-ever captain. The absolute highest honour as an international footballer, a childhood dream realised.

She first wore the armband in the opening 2019 World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland at Mourneview Park, Lurgan. A 2-0 win and three points, the perfect start to a new era.

Leading her country out was “an indescribable feeling,” as she told The42, and doing it in her hometown a few months later was even more special. It was undoubtedly one of her, and her family’s, proudest ever moments, stepping out onto the Tallaght Stadium turf with her little sister by her side as mascot.

katie-mccabe Leading Ireland out at Tallaght Stadium. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It was an amazing feeling and I’m honestly so proud to be the captain of Ireland and hopefully lead us to the next major tournament.”

Enough said, after a 2-1 victory over Slovakia, followed by a famous 0-0 draw with European Champions the Netherlands in Nijmegen later in 2018. The Girls In Green were happy to be doing their talking on the pitch, over a year on from their landmark press conference in Liberty Hall, demanding improved treatment from the FAI.

A fresh-faced McCabe was one of that group of 14 players who fronted up and put their heads above the parapet — something she has gone on to do on numerous occasions since.

Understandably more content speaking through her football, McCabe has always been true to herself and others, and marked Pride month 2019 by speaking publicly about her relationship with team-mate Ruesha Littlejohn.

The pair had been open about their three-year relationship long before then, on a lower key and on social media, though when asked to become ambassadors for Aviva’s Pride campaign, they were delighted to oblige.

“I didn’t think twice about it,” McCabe, who came out to her parents in her mid-teens, said shortly after the launch.

“I think as footballers now we’re given this platform to be role models, and if I changed one person’s life and gave them that confidence to maybe come out to their parents or whatever like that, then I’m happy with that.”

That role-model status and responsibility is something she thrives off, and something that Bell clearly saw in her at the tender age of 21.

One of the Irish team’s most recognisable faces, she has well and truly established herself as their leader on and off the field, and that’s best seen through various interactions with young fans and how impressively she speaks in media interviews.

One interview last October, as Ireland were on the cusp of Euro 2022 qualification against Ukraine – though devastatingly lost 1-0 in Kiev, with McCabe missing a penalty – summed it up.

“I’ve got a little sister who is 12, turning 13, and all she wants to do is become a professional footballer,” she explained. “At the forefront of the Irish women’s football, we can give her that hope she can achieve her dreams someday.

“And that’s who we are doing it for. Not just for my little sister but for all the young girls looking up to us. For me, I was looking up at Emma Byrne, Yvonne Treacy, Ciara Grant, playing in FA Cup finals for Arsenal at Wembley.

“For those girls to be looking up to us is fantastic.”

Nothing will drown out McCabe’s optimism and belief in her Irish team, stressing that each and every time they are knocked down, they will come back stronger.

“I’m really excited about what the future holds for the team,” she said as the last campaign came to a close with defeat to Germany. “A few sleepless nights” followed that heartbreaking night in Kiev, though the hurt drove her on. Her penalty which rattled the crossbar haunted her, but she made sure she scored the next one, always learning and moving forward.

That, she did, for Arsenal in her 100th club appearance in December, and again, against Germany, as she regained her confidence and re-adjusted.

That’s what professional football is all about, after all.

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We’ve got McCabe, Katie McCabe, I just don’t think you understand. She plays out on the wing, she hits it with a zing. We’ve got Katie McCabe.

It’s fair to say that one man must take major credit for McCabe’s rise to Arsenal fan favourite — and more importantly, the world stage.

Joe Montemurro took the Gunners’ reins from Losa in November 2017 and after the player’s return from her loan stint at Glasgow City, propelled her to new heights as Irish international Louise Quinn soon joined the ranks.

manchester-united-v-arsenal-fa-womens-super-league-leigh-sports-village Facing Manchester United last season. Source: PA

Before the Australian worked his oracle, McCabe was always used as an attacking player.

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Generally favoured on the wing up to that point, Montemurro started deploying her in the left-full back position, developing her there on a slow, but steady, upward trajectory. Her versatility came as a massive boost to the Gunners, particularly in their league title-winning 2018/2019 season.

Her’s was the first name on the lips of Chelsea boss Emma Hayes in March ’19 when asked by The42 about the Irish players impressing across the water.

“Katie McCabe’s had a good season,” she said. “She’s a stellar player with a wonderful left boot. I think she’s really matured over the last 12 months.”

That campaign, in which she and Quinn helped Arsenal to league glory, following in the footsteps of other Irish club legends, nobody played more minutes for the Gunners than McCabe.

Contract extensions have been a regular occurence over the past couple of years, Arsenal keen to tie their ever-present Irish star down while others – Quinn included – have come and gone.

Her most recent came in early May, after her best season yet, in which she provided stunning assists and hit headlines week-on-week, while also chipping in with a few goals.

The stats from the 2020/21 campaign speak for themselves, really: 12 assists and four goals in 24 games, countless Team of the Week inclusions and widespread discontent after she missed out on the WSL Player of the Season shortlist.

Her sublime performance in the North London Derby in March certainly epitomised her quality, looking like she would make something happen every time the ball was at her feet, combining with Jordan Nobbs and Miedema in devastating fashion.

The accuracy of her delivery from set-pieces and crosses, the assists, the shots, the goal, and of course, her usual energy, creativity and strength; it was a display which summed her up.

“She’s becoming more intelligent in her movements so she’s getting into better positions more consistently to really hurt teams,” Montemurro said afterwards; McCabe really excelling as an attacking full-back in more advanced areas of the pitch.

“Last year that was maybe a little more random, this year it’s more calculated and structured in terms of the positions she takes up.”

Her love for her club shone through as she put pen to paper and signed her recent new deal, pledging to kick on from her 113 appearances, and Super League, FA Cup and League Cup title wins, since signing in December 2015.

But she’ll have to do so without the watchful eye of Montemurro; the Australian heading to Juventus, and his successor, Jonas Eidevall, appointed yesterday.

“Katie McCabe is one of the highlights of the last three or four years here,” Montemurro before his departure. “It’s been a project which has been an exciting one.

“She’s been thrown every challenge from the day that we brought her back from her loan, and I think she’s just developed into a world-class left-sided player. All credit to her, she personifies exactly what we want from our squad.”

She does that too for Ireland boss Vera Pauw.

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“She’s our captain,” Pauw said in a recent press conference, as McCabe hit 50 caps for her country. “And she’s very good in that.

“All the players are comfortable with her, all the staff is comfortable with her. I always discuss everything with her; what needs to be discussed, we have regular contact. Couldn’t ask for anything more from her.”

Saoirse Noonan, new into the Irish squad in recent times, described her as “a big player I’ve always looked up to”. A Shelbourne star herself now, Noonan sees her as “living proof” a WNL player can make it.

“Katie was actually up training with us before this camp, she was at Shels training,” Noonan explained before the recent double-header of friendlies against Iceland. “Obviously for a player just signed, to see a player like that up training…

“Playing football with her, you learn so quick. That’s been nice. Katie definitely loves Shelbourne, and loved playing with Shelbourne. She has definitely shown that you can get to the top level playing in the Women’s National League.

“She’s definitely proof to everyone – being the captain of the Irish team as well, she’s a true leader. She’s a great person to be around and definitely someone that most of the girls look up to and want to be like.”

Katie McCabe (1)

Generally played on the wing through her 52 Irish caps to date, it’s interesting to hear Pauw’s thoughts on her season at Arsenal.

In more words than O’Toole’s three, she echoes those sentiments.

“She’s had a fantastic season. Phenomenal. Her run through and all her assists are second to none. It’s very good. She’s so confident in that position, she expresses that she would like to have the same kind of position in the national team – it’s difficult when you play in front of the ball, when you play behind the ball. Now she’s constantly playing behind the ball.

“She expressed herself that you need to ask her, she was not as comfortable any more to play in front of the ball. We are searching for a way that we want to get her more forward. Even from that point, you can see that the most dangerous moments are often coming from her foot.”

The plan now is to get more out of her on the international stage, Ireland using more variety in their play as the 2023 World Cup qualifying campaign comes into view.

It will be interesting to see how it unfolds, McCabe destined to play a central role no matter where she is positioned on the pitch, with many more flawless seasons ahead.

There’s no doubt about it, there have been plenty of ups and downs and highs and lows over the past few years with club and with country, but Katie McCabe should be very happy with where she is at the minute.

Football will remain the centre of her universe over the coming years, with the peak of her playing powers yet to be reached, and plenty of interest also expressed in coaching.

The remarkable journey from Kilnamanagh to the world stage continues, and it’s certainly one worth keeping an eye on.

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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