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Ireland's Manchester City star aiming to build on 'positive' 2019

Megan Campbell on the doubts created by the FAI’s perilous financial situation, the highs and lows of the past year and her hopes for 2020.

Megan Campbell pictured playing for Ireland against Ukraine earlier this year.
Megan Campbell pictured playing for Ireland against Ukraine earlier this year.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

TO SAY 2019 has been an eventful year for Irish soccer would be putting in mildly.

Both the men’s and women’s senior teams got new managerial eras underway, while there were some terrific results at underage level.

However, all these developments were overshadowed by various controversies relating to the FAI, which led to the departure of John Delaney from the association and revelations regarding its catastrophic financial state.

The future of the League of Ireland has even been questioned, while the impact of Irish football’s financial crisis is expected to have repercussions for years to come.

Women’s football in this country has tended to be treated particularly shabbily in recent years, notably prompting the infamous protest from players for better working conditions back in 2017.

There is a widespread sense that the situation has improved for the women’s national team since then, though 2019 was not without its problems.

Colin Bell, who many felt had improved the team since his appointment in February 2017, despite failing to oversee their qualification for the 2019 World Cup, abruptly stepped down from his role, taking over as Huddersfield assistant boss instead.

“I had a fantastic offer [from Huddersfield] which I declined, then Huddersfield made a better offer and then I told the FAI what was going on,” Bell told RTÉ. “The question then was ‘What do we have to do to keep you?’

“So we went through a few things and had some really good conversations. I made a list of things I thought needed to be done, and how my position should then be defined. We were speaking about over the next four years.

We were all very optimistic that that would happen, but after a board meeting which happened on Thursday evening, this was not able to come to fruition. Unfortunately, I had to make the decision to leave the FAI.”

Bell’s departure was not lamented by everyone. Aine O’Gorman pointed out that he had achieved no more success than previous managers.

Others, however, such as Diane Caldwell, expressed significant disappointment with his exit.

Either way, it was not an ideal scenario. Ireland faced their first Euro 2021 qualifier against Montenegro with caretaker boss Tom O’Connor in charge.

After suggestions that the FAI were considering promoting a coach from underage level to the senior role, there was blowback.

Megan Campbell suggested to reporters that an internal appointment would represent a “regression” for women’s football.

Eventually, ex-Netherlands boss Vera Pauw undertook the role, with well-respected former Peamount boss Eileen Gleeson coming in as assistant. 

The team have got off to a decent start, with two wins and a draw from their opening three qualifiers. The most recent Greece match was frustrating though, given that Ireland led from the 13th minute and had good opportunities to extend their advantage, before conceding an equaliser in the game’s dying seconds.

vera-pauw Campbell has been impressed with Vera Pauw since she took over as Ireland boss. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Campbell was unavailable for that encounter, and has played just once so far under the new management set-up, in the home fixture with Ukraine, though she has been impressed in the limited time she has spent with them.

Nevertheless, the FAI’s financial woes have cast a grim shadow over Irish football, and while the Man City full-back is trying her best to focus purely on football matters, she acknowledges the situation is far from ideal.

“You’ll always have that small doubt in your head: is it going to hurt us?” she tells The42. “But as players, we just like to keep our head on football as it is.

“We’ll leave that to the people who deal with those things. We as players should keep our heads down and stay out of that. At the end of the day, we’re representing our country and we like to do so at the highest level and the highest standard we can.

“So for us as players, we just need to focus on the next games. If we can get results and make it to a major tournament, then we’ve done our job.

And if we’re improving the women’s game by playing nice football, and improving the crowds and getting more young girls and boys to play football, if we can do that, I’ll feel like we’re doing our jobs, regardless of everything that’s going on in the background now with the FAI.”

Qualification for a major tournament would certainly provide a boost to the association’s perilous financial state, though Campbell plays down the notion that there is any additional pressure on players’ shoulders to qualify as a result of the current mess.

“I don’t know if we would look at that in terms of the expectation on that side of things, but we all put the expectations on ourselves, because we have no real excuses, with the amount of us who are playing at a professional level and a high standard now.

“We all know the qualities that we can bring as a team. So the expectation is probably coming from within ourselves and the team to try to perform as best we can to make those tournaments. But not only for those who are in the squad now, but for those who have paved the way for us.

“I know without those players playing, we wouldn’t be where we are and we wouldn’t be as lucky as we are today. So I think the expectation comes more from within us than externally.”

For Campbell herself, there have been “positive things” to take from 2019. An ACL injury had kept her out of action for 16 months, before she returned back in February amid an FA Cup win over Watford.

manchester-city-women-v-west-ham-ladies-womens-fa-cup-final-wembley-stadium Campbell pictured with the FA Cup last May. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Yet even after making her comeback, patience has been required. It was the end of April when she completed 90 minutes for the first time since her return, and while City won both the League Cup and the FA Cup last season, she had to be content with a place on the bench for both games.

I was happy to be part of it, but obviously there’s a small bit inside you thinking: ‘I’d love to get a few minutes here. I’d love to be able to help the team if needs be.’ Thankfully, I didn’t have to do so, and we were able to win the two trophies, but you’ve always got that little thing in the back of your mind saying ‘please put me on’”.

There was a sense of frustration that the double didn’t become a domestic treble. They lost just one of their 20 league matches in the 2018-19 campaign, but still finished seven points behind champions Arsenal, after a couple of costly draws.

This season, the two teams are neck and neck again, with the Gunners currently three points ahead of their rivals at the top after 10 games.

It has been a somewhat frustrating for Campbell in the sense that she has not always started matches, though she did complete 90 minutes in their most recent league fixture — a comfortable 5-0 win at home to Brighton. She was also part of their Champions League campaign, playing the full 90 minutes as City were dumped out at the last-16 stage by Atletico Madrid

Obviously, as a footballer you want to play week in week out,” she adds. “I’ve got to understand that I’ve been out for two years and my body’s going to hurt at times. I’ve got to get used to the aches and pains. What is an ache and what is an actual pain? I’m just trying to get back in the swing of things. I’m happy to have played in the games I have played in.

“Hopefully, come the end of the season, I’ll be playing a lot more, but I think I started seven and come on in other games. The amount of games I’ve played already this season is more than I’ve played in the last two years. So for me I’ve already exceeded what I wanted to do, or what I’ve done previously. I’m just trying to build on it now.”

Last summer, City showed faith in the 26-year-old Drogheda native by extending her contract a further campaign, with her new deal set to expire in June.

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“It was nice to get some sort of security for another year, to know the club are backing me to get myself back and fully fit and playing again,” she says. “We obviously lost a few players as well. So it was nice to be back involved and I’ve enjoyed my time in Manchester. In February, it’ll be four years. I bought a house over here now, so I’m quite settled in that sense and it’s a place where I want to be playing my football.”

manchester-city-v-west-ham-united-fa-womens-super-league-academy-stadium Another Irish international, Tyler Toland, joined Man City in the summer. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Campbell is not the only Irish person at the club. Ex-men’s international Alan Mahon is the team’s assistant coach, while 18-year-old Donegal-born midfielder Tyler Toland signed back in August and subsequently moved in with the full-back.

“It’s nice for her to have someone who she knows previous to being at City. But she’s settled in well, held her own, and she doesn’t need anyone to look after her. She’s training hard week in week out. Hopefully her time will come when she’ll get minutes on the pitch with us. She’s just working hard, she’s learned a lot in the last six months she’s been here. She still has another year and a half of her contract left, so she’s got a lot of growing and developing to do. 

“She’s only 18 years old, but she’s a good kid, a good one to have around the group, everyone loves her and it’s easy to like her — she’s got a great character about her. So yeah, I’m happy to have another Irish player over with me, someone to talk to so I feel I’m not losing the accent any more.”

Stability is something that is rarely assured in football, particularly in the women’s game, given its paltry finances by comparison to their male equivalents. And Campbell is well aware of how precarious life in the sport can be.

As a player who’s had lots of long-term injuries, I’ve had to look at that side of my career and say when is the time going to come where I’ll have to move into a different field.

“I’ll definitely stay within sport. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to come fully away from football, whether it be within media or coaching, or even something to do with psychology and social work.”

Though still only 26, Campbell has been in the senior game for a long time, featuring in St Francis’ 2009 FAI Cup final triumph just four weeks after her 16th birthday.

Even when she’s speaking about her early days though, you get the sense very much of an old head on young shoulders.

Asked about her decision to link up with Florida State University on a scholarship while studying social science in 2013, she says: “For me, the decision was made based on education. Women’s football, where it was then, you couldn’t rely on it basically being your sole job. If anything was to happen with injuries or anything else, I wanted to have a backup. And when the opportunity came to study, but also to still play football, I jumped at it, and I had a lot of people telling me how good it was.

“If I didn’t go, I’d be regretting not doing it. I had to at least go and try it. When I went there, I thought I was going to end up coming home, but I stayed for three years.”

Upon returning from the States, Campbell joined City and has impressed in England ever since, helping the team win a domestic treble in her first season there. And having witnessed the progress made by women’s football first hand, she is determined to help sustain this upward trajectory for the benefit of future generations as much as anything else.

I think it’s on us now to drive it forward and to keep being those role models for young kids to want to play football and be active in sport. As long as we can keep pushing boundaries, I think we’re doing our jobs.

“If I’ve encouraged one girl to want to play football and be where I am, then I’ve done my job right.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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