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'I'd never expected to be captain of Ireland at 21. It's what you've always dreamed of'

2017 has been one to remember for Katie McCabe. She brings The42 through her rise to where she is today.

KATIE MCCABE WAS on holidays down the country when she got a call she never expected at the age of 21.

kt Katie McCabe. Source: FAI Twitter.

It was the latter weeks of the summer. Her phone screen lit up and showed a text from Colin Bell, who had taken over as the Ireland manager in February. He asked if she was free to Skype.

She explained how she was away with family but he was fairly persistent. A quick call, that’s all it would take he said, but McCabe was wary.

“I thought I was in trouble,” she laughs now looking back, five or so months on and sipping on a coffee at Tallaght stadium. Bell reassured her that all was well and next thing his name flashed up on the screen once again. This time it was the call.

“He just kind of spoke to me and obviously then asked the words, ‘Do you want to be the next captain of Ireland?’” she recalls, in conversation with The42.

“Growing up, it’s what you’ve always dreamed to do, to captain your country.

“I’ve been through all the rankings in underage set-ups and stuff like that, I’ve kind of done all the stepping stones. I’d never expected it, at 21 years of age to be asked to be the next captain of Ireland.

“Especially with what Emma Byrne’s done for us throughout the years, she’s been fantastic for me coming into the senior team.

“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.”

Her first time to lead the national team out came roughly six weeks later. The venue was Mourneview Park in Lurgan and the occasion was a huge one: the first of their 2019 World Cup qualifiers against Northern Ireland.

A night of fresh starts and new beginnings. A hugely proud moment for McCabe and for her family, who were all there in green to support their heroic daughter, sister, niece, friend.

“Luckily it was in Northern Ireland, I’ve quite a big family so they wouldn’t all have been able to travel if it was abroad. They were all there.

N17303 McCabe in Tallaght Stadium last week. Source: Nick Bradshaw.

“To put on that armband and lead your country out into a World Cup qualifying match — my first World Cup qualifier anyway — was something special and an indescribable feeling.

“I’m quite looking forward to doing it here in Tallaght, my hometown. April can’t come quick enough really.”

She grew up in Kilnamanagh, a five minute drive from the home of Shamrock Rovers. One of 11 children, her love for football came to the fore at a very young age.

She vividly remembers watching her Dad and brother Gary, who now has quite the name in the League of Ireland, playing football. He’s a few years older, so took her under his wing and made sure Katie would follow in his footsteps in enjoying football.

She can almost pinpoint the exact moment when she knew exactly what she wanted to do.

“It wasn’t until I seen Gary playing an actual game,” she explains. “You know he was always playing on the road, but playing an actual game around the corner at Kilnamanagh. I loved it ever since.

“My Dad brought me to every training session, every game he could, had me at every trial for Ireland and this and that. You name it, he had me at it to make sure I had that chance to go and take it to the next level.”

As she fell more and more in love with the game, she caught the eye again and again. Skill, pace and a firm eye for goal; she had it all. She stood out in every match she played and word started travelling around football circles of this promising young talent.

Impressing for St Francis’, she started to climb through the underage ranks with Ireland. There was something special about this kid. She was destined for big things.

The next level up on the club agenda was Women’s National League (WNL) football, and she lined out for Raheny for the inaugural season in 2011. Week in, week out she was tearing up defences and lighting up pitches around the country.

Fast forward to 2014, the year which she fully broke the scene on a national stage. That summer was one to remember. McCabe starred as her Ireland U19 crop shattered boundaries to reach the European Championship semi-finals.

Katie McCabe celebrates scoring McCabe in action for Raheny in 2013. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Three wins from three, Dave Connell’s side powered through the group stages with the highlight likely the historic 1-0 victory over Spain. The pool winners’ dream was ended by the Netherlands but still, what they had done was huge.

On home soil, Raheny’s dominance continued and McCabe’s star kept on rising on that front too. Her big moment came that November in the Women’s FAI Cup final. 20 minutes on the clock in the Aviva Stadium, with UCD Waves the opposition.

She stood over a free-kick 35-yards out, the deadlock yet to be broken. Her effort was sublime and rifled into the net past Monica McGuirk. The ‘Pandas’ won it out, McCabe stole the headlines and the reality of taking her career to the next level became almost imminent.

There were a few offers here and there, with Chelsea one of the big clubs to take notice. She finished school, was doing a FÁS course and enjoying her football.

“Then you get a call from Chelsea and you just…,” she continues, hardly able to find the words to explain as she looks back on her 19-year-old self.

“I support Chelsea so I’m like, ‘Oh my God,’ I’m freaking out.”

It wasn’t right for her at the time though so she kept her head down. And just over a year after that cracker of a free-kick, she put pen to paper and signed for Arsenal.

“Obviously the amount of Irish women and men’s players that have been over there, you want to be a part of that,” she smiles. “Emma Byrne over there at the time really sold it to me.

“I made the jump across which was great. It was me taking my football to the next level and that’s what you need to do.

“Ireland’s great and stuff to play with your mates but if you want to be an international player, you need to be playing at the top level week in, week out to be able to compete with the best players.”

It was the dream move basically. At the age of 20, it was slightly daunting though. Her first time leaving home, spreading her wings to leave the nest and get out of her comfort zone.

But the excitement, and the fact that she was finally doing what she had always had her eye on, surpassed all of that.

Katie McCabe McCabe signed for Arsenal in 2015. Source: Arsenal FC.

“It’s kind of the fear of the unknown but it was always something I wanted to do,” she continues.

“When I was growing up, you’d always get people messing saying ‘Ah you’re not going to be a footballer’ or whatever in school and people saying they wanted to be nurses and doctors and I’m like, ‘Nah, I want to be a footballer.’ Always.

“I’ve always got stick of teachers and that saying I can’t do that, ‘what if you get injured,’ this and that. But I stuck with it, stuck to my guns and it eventually happened.”

She speaks glowingly of her family, her ‘biggest fanbase,’ throughout our conversation and how they helped her through the transition to her new life in London.

As she matured and moulded into the player that she is today across the water, she flourished more and more in the Irish set-up. She had made her debut in March 2015, but became more of a mainstay on the starting team as time passed.

She was learning from the best, but the need for game time became more of an issue as she struggled to fully establish herself as a regular starter with Arsenal.

In August of this year, McCabe made the move north and signed for Glasgow City on loan.

“It was obviously a bit of a frustrating time for me at Arsenal,” she admits.

“I was in the team, I was out of the team and stuff like that but that’s part and parcel of senior football. Especially at Arsenal, with such a big club you’re going to have big players, big names at the club.

“It’s great to play with them and train with them day to day and see how they live their life. That’s something I’ve took in as well. I’ve learned a lot from them. But it was just frustrating, I wasn’t playing as much as I’d like to.

“For me, to be able to play for the national team and compete at a good level for 90 minutes, I needed to come away from it and get that consistency and match time every week. That was the thought around the Glasgow move.

“It’s stood to me. I’ve been in a good position then the last couple of games with Ireland. I’ve been feeling fit and confident and that’s down to the Glasgow move.

“We won the League so that wasn’t too bad either,” she grins. “But it was a good move.”

Katie McCabe At Ireland training in October. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The League crown she speaks of was Glasgow’s 11th in-a-row, and an achievement which she shared with three familiar faces. Noelle Murray and Keeva Keenan had been her teammates at Raheny for years while Savannah McCarthy rose through the Ireland ranks alongside McCabe.

Her modesty shines through though. None of this was about her, it was all about the team. Coming in half-way through the season, the groundwork was done but she did whatever she could to play her part.

“To be able to help them in any way was what I was there for and to score goals and help lift trophies. Obviously we did that and they ended up getting their 11th league win in-a-row which is crazy! I don’t think it’s ever been done before.

“Glasgow are a great club and they helped me really well when I was there.”

Well-versed to compare and contrast the Leagues and set-ups in Ireland, England and Scotland, she notes that there are differences across the board. Arsenal’s history and the length that they’ve been in the top tier in England gives them an upper hand, she says, but all of her experiences have been nothing but positive.

Standard-wise, she’s hesitant to compare as it’s been quite some time since she’s played in the WNL.

“When I left it, it was a really high quality. It was flying. There’s now different teams winning whereas it was Raheny the whole time when I was there. It’s great, it shows that clubs are growing and that’s what you want.

“All clubs grow in different ways. You want Ireland to be progressing and challenging. Champions League then and taking that next step, qualifying out of group stages. Ireland are well able to do it, we’ve done it with Raheny.

“We definitely have the players to do it here in Ireland so it can be done.”

All of her past experiences have helped her on the international stage, in particular the recent loan stint in the Scottish capital as she alluded to earlier.

2017 has been somewhat of a roller coaster for the Women’s National Team (WNT). Bell, who guided FFC Frankfurt to Uefa Women’s Champions League glory in 2015, was named as the new manager in February and that brought exciting change.

“When I met Colin, you could feel his energy straight away and what he wanted to do,” McCabe says.

“To not entirely change the team but to help us progress to that next level that we all wanted to get at. That breadth of fresh air was what we needed, his different dynamic and things.

“You knew his high quality straight away and he showed that within the Cyprus Cup. We had a great run.

“That impact straight away gave us the confidence that we could go and create something special. Coming to the end of the year now, we’re getting places. We’re in probably the best position we’ve been in.”

Three wins out of four in Cyprus was the launchpad they were crying out for on the field, and one of the most significant moments in Irish sport of 2017 soon followed off it.

4 April, Liberty Hall. McCabe and 13 other members of the WNT stood at a press conference as they demanded improved treatment.

They outlined the extraordinarily low-quality working conditions they are expected to perform under in a last-ditch attempt to receive better treatment from the FAI.

It was clear that they did not want to be there, it was the last thing they wanted to do. But they had little choice.

“It was quite a stance we took,” McCabe continues. “Obviously, we never wanted it to go to that extent.

“We were in it as a team, we did everything as a team at that moment, still do obviously. It was the right thing at that time. Everything’s settled now which we’re happy with.

“We’re just continuing to put our heads down and working towards qualifying for a major tournament. The FAI have given us that support and it’s great to have it, they’ve been terrific ever since.”

And it seemed to bring the team closer on the pitch too?

“It did,” she agrees.

“Obviously it didn’t just happen in that day, it was ongoing stuff. Emma Byrne was terrific, she led us. That was her as one, that’s what she was as captain and as a person. She’s so driven and that’s what I admire about her.

Katie McCabe 2 The dream move to Arsenal. Source: Arsenal FC.

She continues: “Obviously I was gutted to hear her retirement in the summer time.

“She’s been such a good role model for me growing up. I used to watch her when I was like 10, she kills me for that! She was a terrific player, even better person and I can’t thank Emma enough for what she’s done for women’s football in Ireland.”

The day after Byrne announced that she was hanging up her boots after 23 years as Ireland’s number one, the news that McCabe would take over as captain was made official.

Big shoes to fill, as she mentioned previously, but it must be said that she’s done a stellar job to date. She deflects the praise, heaping it on the entire squad, the blend of youth and experience, and how they’ve bought into Bell’s mindset.

They’ve kept eight clean sheets out of 10 since he’s taken over at the help, and collected seven points from nine in their three World Cup qualifiers to date.

That 2-0 win over Northern Ireland, another in Slovakia, and one of the biggest results Ireland have ever achieved to cap the year.

A massive defensive effort meant they held European champions the Netherlands to a 0-0 draw in front of well over 12,000 fans in Nijmegen.

“It was a pretty special night playing in front of a sold out crowd,” she smiles.

“You just see the support that the national team gets, it’s incredible. And obviously playing in front of a 12-and-a-half, 13,000 seater sell-out is great especially for the younger kids who’ve probably never seen it before.

“I remember my first game in the USA with Sue Ronan and playing in a 40,000 seater stadium sold out, it’s crazy.

“To go over and shut off the Netherlands like we did in such a way it was obviously a fantastic feeling. And to obviously have that little cluster of green in the corner supporting us meant a lot to us as well. 2018 is hopefully going to be a big year for us.”

Katie McCabe The Ireland skipper. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

She adds, when congratulated on their efforts: “You defend first. If you don’t concede, you always have a chance of winning.

“That’s what’s been put in our heads and what we’re sticking to. It’s our base if you like, that we go into games thinking ‘Right, we stay compact as a team, don’t concede and we’ll always have a chance of winning.’

“That’s showing. As you said, eight clean sheets out of 10 isn’t bad at all, seven points out of nine, not bad at all.”

More than aware that her side are in a seriously good position with the New Year approaching, McCabe won’t get too carried away. She won’t lose sight of the goal.

Ireland are yet to reach a major tournament, and France 2019 is what the’re striving for. She lets her mind drift slightly as the prospect is put to her, but she reins her thoughts back in fairly quickly.

“To be honest it would be an absolutely amazing feeling, it would be incredible. Our last game here is against Northern Ireland so to do that against Northern Ireland would be pretty special.

“But we’re taking each game as it comes, we’ve a training camp now in January which we’re looking forward to. We’re not jumping the gun, we’re not saying, ‘This game, this game,’ we’re not counting points before or anything like that.

“We’re taking each game as it comes whether that be friendlies, training camps and then Slovakia is our first game in April. Hopefully we work hard enough to succeed.”

That’s the moment she’ll lead her country in her hometown of Tallaght, the moment she’s been waiting for. Then it’s the Netherland’s return leg, and two clashes with top seeds Norway in June.

Taking each game as it comes, but that’s a challenge they’ve surely circled.

“Norway have been a great nation for so many years,” she says.

“We’re looking at that and we want to reach that level. We’re more than capable of reaching that level. That’s what you admire.

“You admire the Netherlands, the way they can sell out crowds and that. That’s what we want to do.

Shanice van de Sanden with Katie McCabe In action against the Netherlands. Source: Orange Pictures/Rob Koppers/INPHO

“We want to pack out Tallaght as much as we can and get that support from young girls in Ireland wanting to play and show them ‘Look, this is what you can do.’

“Hopefully, it’s going to be an exciting 2018.”

She’s back home for Christmas and happy to recharge the batteries. She has no major plans but there’s no doubt that what’s to come won’t stray to far from her mind.

Back training with Arsenal the last few weeks, what can we expect to see next?

“I’m home to relax and unwind,” she concludes. ”I had a mad couple of months and to be honest, I don’t know, we’ll have to see…..”

Watch this space.

Katie McCabe is the ROI Senior Women’s Team Captain and a PUMA brand ambassador. Special thanks to Tallaght Stadium for their hospitality for the interview.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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