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Dublin: 5 °C Tuesday 19 February, 2019

The Ireland and Liverpool star unwilling to settle for second best

After a trophy-filled career, Niamh Fahey hopes her club success can finally translate to international level.

Niamh Fahey has won 80 caps for Ireland.
Niamh Fahey has won 80 caps for Ireland.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

IN EVERY RESPECT, Niamh Fahey comes across as the consummate pro.

Even before the infamous 2017 press conference in which several representatives of the Irish Women’s football team expressed their dissatisfaction at the lack of professionalism within the set-up, Fahey was speaking out on these issues.

Prior to then, in an interview with The Irish Times, the experienced international had cited “players who are putting their careers on hold and are out of pocket just to represent their country” as a major reason for the team’s continuing inability to reach major tournaments.

Fahey, after all, is someone whose list of accolades includes five league titles and five FA Women’s Cups since leaving local club Salthill Devon for Arsenal in 2008.

Having spent over a decade playing at the elite level in English football with Arsenal, Chelsea and now Liverpool, she has become accustomed to some of the highest standards the women’s game can currently offer.

The Irish set-up, for years, paled in comparison. Yet the considerable changes that have been implemented in the past three years have left scope for optimism.

The team may have ultimately failed in their aim of qualifying for the 2019 World Cup, having found themselves in an extremely difficult group with Norway and the Netherlands — widely regarded as two of best sides in Europe — but there has been evidence of progress since Colin Bell was confirmed as the team’s new manager in February 2017. The 0-0 draw away against the Dutch was especially impressive, while the 1-0 loss in Norway could so easily have been different had fortune favoured the Irish.

Nevertheless, for all these plus points, Bell’s side are a team in transition and this year’s World Cup perhaps would have come too soon.

Today, the Irish team play their first match of 2019, at the Pinatar Arena in Murcia, Spain (kick-off: 2pm Irish time). Their opponents, Belgium, also were not far off World Cup qualification, coming unstuck via the play-offs ultimately, having missed out on automatic qualification after finishing two points behind Italy in their group.

Two players in particular will be familiar to Fahey – Yana Daniëls, her team-mate at Liverpool, and Manchester City star Tessa Wullaert. They have a number of others playing in top European leagues — including players in France, Italy and the Netherlands — and Fahey believes they are “probably a bit further down the road than we are” in their development.

They’ve been together four or five years as a group, so I think they’re more experienced in terms of being together as a squad,” she tells The42. “So they’re probably more used to each other in that sense whereas we’re at the stage of getting through a lot of young players and bringing them through the squad and the environment.” 

The Irish side, of course, has lost two experienced players, with both Áine O’Gorman and Karen Duggan announcing their international retirements at the end of the last qualifying campaign. O’Gorman’s departure makes Fahey Ireland’s most-capped active women’s international player, having represented her country 80 times.

Aine O'Gorman Áine O'Gorman's recent international retirement means there is greater responsibility on Fahey's shoulders. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In addition, several promising young players have emerged. Of the current 21-player squad, 10 are teenagers, with the likes of Jessica Ziu (16), Eabha O’Mahony (16), Emily Kraft (16) and Tyler Toland (17) not even old enough to drink yet. 

In addition, Megan Connolly is 21 and has just completed her Social Sciences degree at Florida State University, while winning NCAA College Championship with Florida State Seminoles in the process. Striker Amber Barrett has just turned 22, while team captain Katie McCabe is 23.

The considerable youth of the squad means the onus will be on the likes of Fahey (31), Louise Quinn (28) and Diane Caldwell (30) to make their experience count and guide the youngsters through the arduous process of adapting to international football.

“If they need anything, they can come and ask. And we can lead by example,” Fahey says.

“I’m still enjoying playing and representing my country, but I do have a role to play in helping these young girls to develop as well.”

Nevertheless, with the start of the European Championship qualifiers just a few months away, Fahey plays down suggestions the team should be afforded some leeway on account of their inexperience.

“It’s not a question about age,” she explains. “The girls that are coming in are more than ready to play.”

More than a decade on from her senior debut, Fahey feels pride at having been an integral part of the Irish side for so long. The recent retirement of O’Gorman, who won 100 caps and at 29 is younger than the Liverpool star, served as a reminder that her time in football is finite. Consequently, that nagging sense of underachievement needs to be rectified sooner rather than later.

“It’s like anything, if there’s no qualification at the end of it, it won’t be something that will really make a difference,” she says. “Everyone’s goal, and Áine’s was, to qualify for a tournament. Hopefully I’ll be around long enough to be able to do that, we’ll see.

With Colin coming in, he has the groundwork laid out for getting us to a major championships and I think he’s the right person to lead us there.

“His attitude, expectations and what he demands in a training session are higher than what we’ve ever experienced.

“From his own drive as a manager and what he’s experienced as a player, the success he’s had is where the bar is at. So he’s demanding that off us and we have to meet those expectations.

“If we don’t, we’ll hear about it. It’s only a good thing. But definitely, the levels have gone up a lot [since his arrival].”

Soccer - Women's FA Cup - Final - Arsenal v Sunderland - Pride Park Arsenal's Irish trio Niamh Fahey (left), Emma Byrne (centre) and Ciara Grant celebrate with the FA Women's Cup trophy in 2009. Source: EMPICS Sport

And while the situation has improved at international level, Fahey’s club career has become slightly more turbulent in recent times.

After six highly successful years at Arsenal, the Irish international joined rivals Chelsea at the end of 2014. While there, she helped the Blues win a league and cup double, but ultimately lost her place in the team after picking up an injury.

Not content with being a squad player, in the summer of 2017, Fahey left the London club to move to Bordeaux. 

The Galway native enjoyed playing in France. She speaks highly of the free-flowing football, while opponents such as Lyon and PSG are among the best teams in Europe. It was not easy off the pitch, however, as she struggled to communicate with her Leaving Cert-level French.

“It’s not like men’s football, where you come over and everything is taken care of and there’s a liaison officer to set everything up,” she says. “It’s literally going to people for bank accounts, housing and all different things, so it’s quite difficult to get set up over there and when you don’t know the language. France is quite independent and proud of their culture, so there aren’t too many with the level of English that you can have a decent conversation with. So all those things become a bit difficult — it was a great experience, but a year was enough for me.”

Last summer, the opportunity to join Liverpool — the club Fahey supported growing up — arose. It did not take her long to decide on a return to English football. The player’s Reds tenure, though, has been hampered by upheaval off the pitch. Neil Redfearn, the manager who signed her, left after just two competitive games, including a 5-0 defeat by Arsenal. 

“The former Leeds United and Rotherham manager only started working on Merseyside three months ago and had spoken about how much he was enjoying himself in the job,” a Daily Telegraph report from last September noted.

“However, in private there is thought to have been tension regarding the way the women’s operation was being run, as well as over the quality of players recruited in the summer.”

Former Liverpool player Chris Kirkland subsequently was appointed caretaker boss following Redfearn’s departure, before Vicky Jepson became the permanent manager at the end of October.

Partially due to this shaky start, Liverpool are currently a somewhat disappointing eighth out of 11 teams in the Women’s Super League, with four wins, one draw and eight defeats.

Things have been a bit rocky off the pitch,” Fahey acknowledges. “But the new manager has come in and steadied the ship.

“We’re doing okay — performances can improve and hopefully they will improve, but apart from that, I’ve really enjoyed being in Liverpool and being at the club.

“There’s been a whole new squad brought together, so we haven’t had a lot of time to gel. Then obviously with disruptions, managers changing, and different things, it’s been quite hard to get a run of momentum. I think we’re better than where we are in the league and hopefully we can start to get some results that will put us higher up in the table.”

United Kingdom: The Best FIFA Football Awards - Show Fahey pictured with Jess Clarke (left) and Liverpool boss Vicky Jepson (centre) at the The Best Fifa Football Awards. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

A versatile player comfortable playing at full-back or centre-half, Fahey has mainly been deployed as a holding midfielder since Jepson took charge. 

“It’s always hard when managers change, because managers want different things and you might not fit, but luckily for me, it’s been okay. I’ve managed to keep my spot and I’ve been playing regularly when I’ve been fit, so I’m enjoying it, testing myself again back in the WSL [Women's Super League].”

Fahey and co play their home games at Prenton Park, the ground of the Tranmere Rovers men’s side. Its capacity of approximately 15,000 makes it the biggest stadium in the WSL, and though a loyal batch of around 1,000 supporters generally turn up to games, it can feel “a bit empty at times” on account of its size.

“The facilities are good and it’s a good pitch. We’re playing the same season as the men’s fixtures, so there’s always hassle in getting pitches and behind-the-scenes stuff and whatnot. It’s probably a bit annoying, that [attendance] number, or less even for some games. But there’s a hardcore group of fans there that [support us] come rain or shine. But hopefully it can grow like everything else.”

While the present situation is far from ideal, Fahey remains optimistic that Liverpool can become a powerful club in the women’s game.

“It’s difficult, because I came from those clubs [Chelsea and Arsenal] where we were very much integrated into the men’s system and were based at the training ground there and obviously the facilities were top class.

It’s been a bit different at Liverpool, because we’re playing out at Tranmere’s facilities. I think there are plans in the pipeline to move everyone to the academy training centre and they’re getting rid of Melwood, so I think it will be everyone under the one roof [in the future].

“They are investing a lot of money and the game is growing. It still needs a lot of backing – the revenue isn’t there, but for future generations, it’s going to improve with commercialism and all that, and they will probably reap the benefit more than we will.”

With better times seemingly on the horizon for both Liverpool and Ireland, Fahey would be forgiven for feeling somewhat envious of the new generation coming through. She can undoubtedly reflect with satisfaction, though, on making the most of the opportunities that came her way.

Fahey realises she is closer to the end than the beginning of her career, but the Irish star certainly has plenty of options to consider whenever she does decide to hang up her boots.

The accomplished defender has started doing her coaching badges and would be tempted by a career on the sidelines should she get the chance.

Kenny Naughton and Gary Fahey. DIGITAL Fahey's brother Gary, right. captained Galway to All-Ireland SFC glory in 2001. Source: INPHO

As a youngster, Fahey also played inter-county football with Galway, while her brother Gary captained the men’s side to All-Ireland glory in 2001 and another brother, Richie, also represented the county. Consequently, a return home to reacquaint herself with the GAA world is another attractive prospect.

Outside of sport, Fahey has a master’s in pharmacology from the University of Hertfordshire and would be interested in recommencing a career in this area in future.

For now though, the player’s main focus is on adding to her impressive list of accolades, with Liverpool and Ireland.

Her career has been full of challenging moments, but Fahey’s relentless drive and constant striving for perfection has enabled her to overcome all obstacles.

In 2013, Fahey suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury and there were inevitable doubts over whether she could come back stronger and the former Gunners defender still vividly recalls enviously watching her team-mates from afar as she undertook a taxing rehabilitation process.

“The year after my ACL injury, I’d been out a long time and I hadn’t played too many games,” she remembers. “I was lucky enough to get the start in the FA Cup final for Arsenal against Everton and we ended up winning. It was a real test for me. We won and I ended up having a decent enough game as well. It was just a really good moment for me, because obviously there were a lot of doubts in your mind when you’re coming back. Will you make it or be back to where you are?

“Unless something happens, you don’t realise how fortunate you are not to have a serious injury. When it does happen, it can knock you psychologically as well. 

“Your confidence can suffer or the doubts can creep in, but when you actually [overcome] them in the end, you get your rewards for the hard work and the graft you put in, it just makes it that bit sweeter.

“You have to be so mentally strong. It’s devastating because you can play really well and it can be taken from you out of nowhere. It’s just such a slog to get back to how you were going before.”

Yet such gritty determination has gotten Fahey far in the game, and she is not planning on slowing down anytime soon. 

“If you want it badly enough, then you’re prepared to put in the work,” she adds.

“There are a few sacrifices — you might have to leave home and take a chance going somewhere. But if that’s what you really want to do, then just follow it.

“Most people will say it’s about the work-rate that you put in. It’s all well and good being talented, but if you don’t work hard, you’re not going to make it.”

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Paul Fennessy

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