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The story of how a young Irish international became a star player in Sweden

In an extract from Michael Walker’s book ‘Green Shoots,’ Ireland and Arsenal star Louise Quinn remembers her stint in Sweden.

Ireland international Louise Quinn enjoyed a successful stint in Sweden with Eskilstuna.
Ireland international Louise Quinn enjoyed a successful stint in Sweden with Eskilstuna.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from Green Shoots: Irish Football Histories by Michael Walker.

“We won 4-1 but, oh, I had a terrible game. The ball was bouncing off me, going everywhere. Our coach didn’t think that, he thought we were playing like the Harlem Globetrotters. But the nerves really got to me. Thankfully it turned out to be the start of a really successful season.”

Louise Quinn is looking back at her debut for a club called Eskilstuna United in the second division of Swedish women’s football. It was April 2013, Quinn was 22, and she felt a long way from Wicklow and Peamount United.

By the time she left, four seasons later, Eskilstuna had come a close second in the top division and played in the Champions League. Louise Quinn was described in Swedish newspapers as ‘fundamental’, ‘a defensive rock’ and ‘a real servant who didn’t miss a minute’s play.’ There were 324 locals at her home debut; two years later when Eskilstuna played Goteborg, there were 6,300 at the club’s Tunavallen stadium.

The attendance spike is why in Sweden they refer to ‘the phenomenon of Eskilstuna’, a small city west of Stockholm where the women’s football team is more popular than the men’s. Quinn, who started out as a seven year-old playing for Blessington Boys, became a significant part of that. As they said, fundamental.

“It was exciting, it was the unknown, the second tier of Swedish football,” Quinn says.

“In the first couple of home games there were only two or three hundred people there but we kept grinding out wins and the club kept pushing it off the pitch, they were really good at promoting it. We’d be on social media, attending events around the town, going to schools, I’ve been standing in a thunderstorm at a shopping centre handing out leaflets. The people in the town felt we cared about them.”

The town responded, enabling a club formed in 2002 to sign and sustain players 132 such as Quinn on full-time contracts. That in turn gave her a taste of professionalism and the knowledge that she could make a career, economically, from the growing interest in the women’s game.

The thought had entered Quinn’s mind seriously in 2011, when Peamount had made it to the Champions League and faced Paris St-Germain.

“Getting through to that stage was massive for Peamount,” Quinn says. “But when you got there you saw the standard, where the rest of Europe was and where Ireland was. It was a bit of a reality check. It was about fitness and technique but also about the coaching structure around you. We did compete with PSG but in the end their fitness told. It was then that I started to think: ‘Could I go abroad? Would I be good enough?’”

There were coaches in Ireland who would have answered Quinn in the affirmative. This after all was a defender capped at U17 level when she was 14. Or as Quinn puts it: “14 going-on 15 – I was a very large 14 year-old.” She became a full Ireland international at 17.

Louise Quinn Louise Quinn made her Ireland debut at 17. Source: James Crombie

But Quinn had doubts. When asked if playing U17 football at 14 was not a sign of talent, she answers: “Well, yes and no.” She had not been on the same school-system route that other girls in the international set-ups had come through. Plus, at 15, she fractured a hip and was out for 10 months.

Furthermore, Quinn’s mother Jacinta and father John, a County Wicklow Gaelic footballer, were eager for their third daughter of three sisters to complete her education. Quinn did that, getting a degree from University College Dublin in Sports and Exercise Management.

The emphasis on study, while playing for Peamount, meant that it was only when her degree was ending that Quinn used the video technology of FAI performance analyst Gerard Dunne at the course in Carlow to create a highlights package. A friend with an agent in the women’s game had suggested this. That was, Quinn says, ‘around November-December 2012’.

By February 2013 she was signing a one-year full-time contract with Eskilstuna.

Transfers aren’t massive in women’s football and there wasn’t a lot of head-hunting five years ago,” she says. “I was told Eskilstuna was a good club, an up-and-coming club that wanted to push on. They were in the second tier, but I thought that might be a good starting point for me. ‘Will I like it?’ ‘Will I be good enough?”

“What helped was that a friend from Peamount, Vaila Barsley, was also joining. She’s a centre-back as well and we were thinking: ‘Do they need two?’ But she’s similar, about 6ft, loves defending, heading the ball, we became a partnership. I was just very excited and my Mum and Dad were brilliant. My Dad always says: ‘Any opportunity, take it.’’

A wage coming in, accommodation provided, Quinn endeavoured to settle into a full-time regime where a squad of 16-18 players trained every day. She was to make it work, but there were moments of hesitation along the way. The first day, for example.

“There was about a foot and a half of snow and I was thinking: ‘Where am I? There were even some Swedes who hadn’t heard of Eskilstuna United. And the first session was in the gym and I wasn’t very educated in that, not like the Swedes who do some of that in school. Sweden is a very fit and healthy nation. It was a bit daunting alright and the snow stuck around for two or three months. But when we got on the pitch, I felt a lot more comfortable.”

Quinn experienced the long, deep, dark Swedish winter in which Eskilstuna would train in minus 18 temperatures — “Oh, yeah, frozen eyelashes, frozen hair, and I still had that Irish reluctance to wear proper clothes.”

But something was coming together at Eskilstuna United. They won promotion in Quinn’s first season and then finished a respectable seventh in the top flight in her second season. In her third, Eskilstuna finished just a point behind Rosengard, an established power in Sweden’s women’s game.

“When we were getting promoted people started coming and just clung onto it,” Quinn says of the effect on the population – around 70,000.

“It was the most successful team in Eskilstuna and people were enjoying what we were doing. As more fans came, the more we said: ‘Let’s keep this up.’”

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The stadium was shared with two men’s teams and had about 6,000 seats. We’d some great wins after promotion and we’d some local players, which helps. In the third season, when we finished second, we should have won it. But we didn’t have the experience, nerves kicked in and we’d a tough run-in. We felt the pressure, even the coach. And Rosengard, on paper, they’d the bigger names.’

One of those Rosengard names was Marta, the Brazilian regarded as the greatest-ever female footballer.

Second place in 2015 meant Champions League football in 2016, however, and Eskilstuna beat Glasgow City, then faced Wolfsburg. Those were two different propositions, the Germans playing at a higher level altogether. The 3-0 defeat at Wolfsburg was Quinn’s last game for Eskilstuna.

It was November 2016. She had signed one-year contracts and at the end of that fourth season, Quinn sat down to reflect on where she was in her career. She was 25 and could see money being invested in the French league, the English league. She had just seen the standard of German football.

There was an itch. She could speak some Swedish but found that when she tried to do so in social circles, the replies were in English. The coaching sessions were also held in English.

I know the language but I’m not fluent in it. The club didn’t make me learn it and I wasn’t massive into languages at school because of the form of dyslexia I have. I found that tough, I’d have Swedes saying: ‘Why don’t you know the language yet?’

“I found it tough to make friends outside football and I do like to have that, so I’m not thinking about football all the time. I’d a good social circle in Ireland. And the Swedish winters are long and they’re just dark and grey before the snow comes in January and February.”

Another unexpected thing Quinn noticed was that Swedes constantly called her British, not Irish. There would be media references to her and Barsely such as ‘the two British centre-backs were dominant’. Barsley was unperturbed — she is English — but Quinn was bemused.

“I’m still educating them on Ireland. They always called me British and when I said: ‘I’m Irish’, they’d say, well, you come from the British Isles. I told them that was old-school geography.”

Quinn’s personal geography was about to change. A ‘homebird’, she flew back to Ireland, then heard about an offer from Notts County in England’s Women’s Super League.

“Sweden definitely shaped me as a player. I was learning the whole time, new formations, training every day. I had given every ounce I had to the team but I needed a new challenge. I just took a chance on Notts Co.”

If Eskilstuna United was a risk that paid off, a new experience in another part of the world, Notts Co. was a blast of a different kind of reality. Two days before they were due to play Arsenal in the 2017 WSL season opener, the squad was called to Meadow Lane and informed the club had been liquidated.

It was brutal,” Quinn says. “I knew a little bit about the club, that there was a new owner and that they’d signed the likes of myself and re-signed the girls already there. But when we got a text to tell us to be at the ground the next day for 11, that training was cancelled – not re-scheduled, cancelled – then you fear the worst. And it was the worst. There was a lot of anger, tears, it was very confusing. Some girls even asked if we would still be playing on the Sunday. ‘No, this is it.’’’

Because of what happened next, Quinn feels conflicted. She feels most for the players who had settled, arranged places to live and planned their lives around Notts Co. But when she called her agent, she was told that Arsenal were looking for a centre-half and she was it. A week after Notts Co. folded Quinn was on the bench for Arsenal.

“I did have mixed emotions. I felt bad – I was with Arsenal and we were supposed to be playing them. I’m glad the majority of the Notts Co. girls got sorted.”

Green Shoots: Irish Football Histories by Michael Walker is published by De Coubertin Books. More info here.

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):

‘Too many people spread stupid stories on why I left United, about gambling and the mafia’>

‘It’s a sad and unfortunate situation which makes you realise how lucky you are to play sport for a living’>

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