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The Irish Liverpool fan who grew up to captain them

Ireland international Niamh Fahey on being appointed the Reds’ new skipper.

Ireland international Niamh Fahey was confirmed as Liverpool's new captain earlier this week.
Ireland international Niamh Fahey was confirmed as Liverpool's new captain earlier this week.
Image: PA

LIVERPOOL ARE THE second most popular football team in Ireland, according to a survey published by Cork University Press earlier this year.

The research suggests that they are just behind Man United, with the two English clubs having over a million fans between them in this country.

So up there with winning the All-Ireland or scoring in the World Cup final, captaining Liverpool is the stuff of many Irish sports fans’ dreams.

Of course, a person’s chances of achieving this ambition is slim to none. Unless, of course, you’re Niamh Fahey.

The Galway native was confirmed as the new Reds skipper earlier in the week.

“I’m just massively proud and happy really,” she tells The42. “There’s been a smile on my face the last couple of days.

“To actually be Liverpool football captain, it’s a bit surreal.”

Growing up in Ireland, Fahey says she didn’t even dare to dream that she would grow up to lead the club she supported.

I didn’t think it was ever going to be possible, because it didn’t exist really to be a professional player in the UK at that time. The profile and visibility of women’s football was [minimal]. So I grew up pretending to be Michael Owen, getting the jersey and stuff like that.

“Obviously, everyone grows up wanting to be a footballer, but it’s still not the same as for a young guy growing up. For a guy, it was very much a real prospect, whereas for me, it wasn’t.”

Watching the Women’s FA Cup final on BBC was a big moment for a young Fahey, particularly when she discovered three Irish players — Emma Byrne, Yvonne Tracy and Ciara Grant — were involved for Arsenal.

“Seeing that on TV, that opened my eyes a bit. But then they were in the UK as well playing semi-professionally at Arsenal, so when that happened, and I started getting picked on the Irish teams and opportunities started to fall into place, I did think later on that this was something I could pursue.”

Fahey did eventually sign for Arsenal, joining from Salthill Devon and playing there between 2008 and 2014.

For a period, she was consistently Ireland’s standout player, winning the Senior International Player of the Year award three times in the space of four years between 2008 and 2011.

A debilitating cruciate injury in 2013 set her back. She left Arsenal the following year, having stints with Chelsea and Bordeaux, before signing with Liverpool in 2018.

Fahey has been played as a defensive midfielder for Ireland recently and spent time in the position for Liverpool too, but last season was deployed in her favoured centre-back role for the Reds, and she anticipates that is unlikely to change in the forthcoming campaign.

The Irish star was appointed captain after previous skipper Sophie Bradley-Auckland opted to prioritise her work with residents of a care home run by her family over her club commitments.

Fahey, meanwhile, spent the lockdown back in Galway, staying with her brother and his wife, and helping to mind their two young children. There was also ample opportunity to go for runs in the woods and bike trails of the countryside.

Now though, it’s back to business. Fahey and her colleagues have been training for the past seven weeks and have already played a couple of friendlies.

liverpool-v-arsenal-fa-womens-super-league-lookers-vauxhall-stadium Vicky Jepson's side were relegated earlier this year. Source: Nigel French

One of the worst moments of the enforced break occurred back in June. After the coronavirus crisis prompted the decision to end the Women’s Super League season prematurely, it meant that Liverpool were relegated from the top flight on a points-per-game basis.

When play was halted, the Reds were bottom in the only relegation spot on six points with eight games to play. Nonetheless, they were just a point behind rivals Birmingham City and trailed Bristol City by three.

“I can look at it a bit better now, but when the decision was first announced, I was fuming and massively pissed off for want of a better word,” Fahey says. “But it is what it is. We have to get over it. We had a poor season. We were in that position and put ourselves in that position. You can’t leave anything to chance. That’s what happened and they decided to relegate us.

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“We just had to get on with it then and get our heads around it — we are where we are. We have to just bounce back and get ourselves straight back up.”

And was the Ireland international surprised by the controversial decision?

“I didn’t expect it, to be honest. I was surprised they did it, given that there were a number of games left and it was tight down there. I don’t think any other women’s league did relegation.

“But these things can happen. We had a poor season and we can’t have any massive complaints we were in the position when we put ourselves there, so it is what it is.”

Despite going down, the team still had the fifth-best defensive record in a 12-team league. Yet a paltry record of eight goals in 14 games ultimately proved costly.

“There’s no getting past the fact that we didn’t score enough goals last season and games were tight.

“A lot of games we should have got something out of and we ended up losing 1-0.

“We missed a lot of chances that we should be putting away. So it’s something that we have to get better at as a team collectively. But already, plans are in place, doing that and different things.”

As the most high-profile team in the Championship, Liverpool are currently favourites to gain promotion, as they prepare to host Durham in their opening league fixture on 6 September. And Fahey agrees with the suggestion that the season will be a failure if they don’t achieve their primary ambition.

“Everyone will look at us to be the team that goes straight back up, being Liverpool and being newly relegated. We know what’s expected of us and we know we have the capabilities, we just have to produce it.

“It’ll be a lot different in terms of the calibre of teams. There’s a mix and match. Not all teams are full-time and professional, so there’ll be different challenges with that depending on fitness levels or low blocks and beating a low block.”

In the same summer the men’s team won the league, the state of the women’s team drew plenty of criticism, with debates over whether or not they were adequately funded by the hierarchy.

These concerns are nothing new. Previous manager Neil Redfearn stepped down just two games into the 2018-19 season, reportedly because he felt the team weren’t being properly supported by the club

Their demotion to the Championship had led to renewed criticism. Jess Fishlock, Wales’ most capped player, was particularly strong on the matter recently, calling Liverpool Women a “token gesture team” and suggesting the club ”don’t really care” about the women’s game, an accusation that the Reds have themselves denied

While acknowledging that there have been problems in the past, Fahey rejects Fishlock’s criticism.

This is the first time I’ve heard about the comments, but she’s probably come from a place where it hasn’t been done right at Liverpool previously. But she isn’t obviously privy to what’s going on now. The thing is, we’re not a token gesture anymore and I certainly don’t feel like a token gesture.

“Plans were put in place to rectify the structural differences that were there before in terms of funding and resources. Just the whole structure of the backroom team. That’s all in place now. People commenting from the outside don’t know the full ins and outs of things. Us as players, we just have to do our job. Anyone else can have their opinions — that’s just what it is.”

So while results on the field have been disappointing of late, Fahey is happy with the set-up behind the scenes.

“It is going in the right direction. There are lots of things being done off the pitch to get things up to standard and where they should be for Liverpool Football Club. 

“They weren’t there before. That’s definitely all been highlighted. It’s time now to put in place these structures and build on it.” 

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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