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EMPICS Sport Hourihan has played her club football with Man City since joining in December 2015.
# safe pair of hands
'It didn’t feel like there was a decision to be made because I have an attachment with Ireland'
Early signs suggest Manchester City goalkeeper Marie Hourihan is well-equipped to fill Emma Byrne’s sizeable gloves.

REPLACING “ONE OF Irish football’s great servants” was always going to be a tough task.

After 23 years and a record 125 senior international caps, Ireland goalkeeper Emma Byrne announced her retirement from the game back in August.

Aside from being a huge presence on the field as team captain, the ex-Arsenal number one was also a leader off it and fronted the strike that secured improved working conditions from the FAI earlier this year.

With the 2019 World Cup qualification about to begin, Women’s national team manager Colin Bell needed someone with a big personality and a safe pair of hands to fill the void — and Marie Hourihan appears to have provided just that.

In her two competitive appearances, the Girls in Green have yet to concede and while that is largely down to a defensive solidity throughout the side, Manchester City stopper Hourihan has looked assured between the posts.

“Emma is a figure-head of Irish women’s football,” Hourihan said of her predecessor this week.”It’s a big act to follow, but that galvanises me because there are expectations on me. It spurs me on to make sure my levels are up to the standards that she has set.

“It’s something that I embrace rather than fear. Also, because I’m that much more experienced now I’m used to the expectation levels of being at big clubs and around top players. It’s all quite normal for me.”

Emma Byrne leads out her team Ryan Byrne / INPHO Byrne, leading the team out here in a friendly against Slovakia, announced her retirement in August. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Hourihan was only handed her Ireland debut as recently as March — in a friendly with Hungary — and at one stage it looked as though the chance to play international football may not come.

Born in the northwest London suburb of Harrow, Marie started out at local clubs before joining Fulham’s academy at 13. It would be another year before she discovered her knack for keeping the ball out of the net, however.

“Even at that age, I didn’t realise there was senior football or women’s teams with leagues,” she admits. “I only went in goal at 14. I started as a centre forward, then centre mid, centre half and eventually ended up goal.

“It was one of those stories, the goalie got injured and they were like ‘Go on, you can fill in’. To be fair, in my first game I saved a penalty and that was it.

“Going from outfield, you’re like ‘Wow, it’s a totally different world’. It’s an individual sport within a team because you’re on your own and you’ve got to be quite good at managing yourself. I needed to learn a new skillset.

I got to play my first senior game at 15, for Watford, and the rest is history.”

When the FA launched the new Women’s Super League in 2011, Hourihan signed for Birmingham City, where she took part in the inaugural season and lifted the FA Women’s Cup.

Having establishing herself as first-choice, she joined Chelsea two years later and began well but a broken collarbone suffered on the last day of the campaign ruled her out for much of the following year. Despite that, Hourihan enjoyed league title success as well as another triumph in the cup.

Then in 2016, Man City came calling. Much like Pep Guardiola’s Premier League leaders, the Abu Dhabi United Group’s wealth has also helped to develop the women’s team immensely in recent years and it felt like the right move.

“Once I was taken around the club, it was a no-brainer,” Hourihan says. “It’s the way the game is going and they are leading the way — although your Arsenals and Chelseas are very similar in terms of structure now.

“They don’t see you as a female, they just see you as a footballer, which was unheard of.”

Marie Hourihan Ryan Byrne / INPHO Marie training with Ireland this past week. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Hourihan, whose four grandparents are from Cork and Roscommon, represented England right up to U23 level but a senior call-up never materialised. Interest from Ireland had been mooted for some time, and it was Bell who included her in his squad for the first time earlier this year.

The player herself is quick to point out that her ties with Ireland are strong.

“When Colin came in, he contacted me and said he had been made aware that I was eligible to play for Ireland,” she explains. “He asked if I was interested and I said ‘Yeah, definitely… 100%’.

“To be fair, my family is Irish. I was born in England and my parents were born there but all the rest of my family and grandparents are over here. I’ve always come over here at least two or three times a year so it’s not like one of those ‘What’s it like?’ kind of things where I’m really just a tourist.

For me, it didn’t feel like there was a decision to be made because I have an attachment with the country so I was like ‘Yeah’.”

Having been welcomed into the group with open arms, Hourihan is enjoying her first year with the Irish set-up.

“Colin has brought a lot of younger players in and everyone was starting with a clean slate so it was the perfect time to come in,” he adds.

“In terms of the group, you couldn’t ask for better people. You hear people say ‘We’ve got great team spirit’ and you’re like ‘Really, do you?’ but here we genuinely come in and everyone is looking forward to the week.

“You speak to other players with different countries and two or three days in they’re like ‘Oh God, we’ve still got another week of this’, whereas here we’re happy to be here and we enjoy each others’ company.

“I think that’s reflected on the pitch massively so it’s stood us in good stead so far.”

Netherlands v Denmark - UEFA Women's Euro 2017 - Final - De Grolsch Veste Mike Egerton The Dutch players celebrating their Euro 2017 win in August. Mike Egerton

Two wins from two away trips mean Ireland sit level with the Netherlands and Norway in Group 3 ahead of Tuesday’s meeting with the Dutch in Nijmegen.

Avoiding defeat against the current European champions will be no mean feat — especially with experienced players such as Megan Campbell, Aine O’Gorman and Stephanie Roche all missing through injury.

“It was really disappointing, for her first and foremost, but for us as well,” Hourihane says of Man City team-mate Campbell, who is likely to miss several months after rupturing the anterior cruciate ligaments in her knee. “We’ve made such a good start to the campaign and she’s played such a prominent role.

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“She’s 24, she’ll come back even better. You’ve got to be as positive as you can in a situation like that and she’s in a great place because she will get the best of treatment.

“We’ve got to do a job for her and make sure that when she comes back in September we’ll be still in contention to qualify.”

Despite the absentees, there is a confidence among the group that they can come away with something this week.

“One of the biggest tasks Colin set was to make us hard to beat,” says Hourihan. “Most Irish teams, male or female, have that resilience and that underdog spirit of being tough and hard to break down.

“We really embrace that. People will say the first two games were against teams that are in and around us so there is an expectation to get points out of those matches, but to be away from home and to be clinical in our performances has been very pleasing.

“What Colin has put into place is coming to fruition but Tuesday is going to be a massive test of that as we’re going to the European champions with the atmosphere of a sold-out stadium.

“The expectation is that they are going to win so it’s about how we deal with that and respond, because there are going to be difficult times and periods in the game.

There is a lot of belief in this team but we’re not just going there as their opponents as if it’s all down to them. We’re going there to get a result so the previous performances have only boosted our confidence for this game.”

She adds: “It’s keeping ourselves in the game. You know what football’s like, it can change in a second. If we’ve kept ourselves in a position where we can affect that then we’ll be happy.

“Don’t get me wrong, they’ve got some fantastic players and it’s going to be a hard game mentally and physically, but this is why you play and these are the tests you want to be having. You want to be playing against the best players in the world so it’s something that excites you.”

Hourihan has won a raft of major honours at club level, but a first-ever qualification to the World Cup would undoubtedly be right up there.

“It’s the pinnacle of anyone’s career to play at a major tournament,” she says. “To be the first Irish team to qualify one would be special. Knowing the amount of coverage and support it would generate in the country would be something exciting to be a part of.

“I have full confidence and belief, with Colin and the squad here, that we can achieve something so it’s definitely exciting times for Irish women’s football.”

Ireland’s WNT face the Netherlands in the De Goffert Stadion, Nijmegen, tomorrow night. Kick-off is 7pm Irish time (8pm local time) and it is live on eirSport 1

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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