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'It was a tough road. You always have doubts' - Ireland's breakthrough star of 2021

Savannah McCarthy is back on track after a challenging few years.
Nov 25th 2021, 6:45 AM 6,742 0

savannah-mccarthy Savannah McCarthy pictured at an Ireland media day earlier this week. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

SAVANNAH MCCARTHY HAS been a real breakthrough star for the Republic of Ireland in 2021.

Having excelled as Galway taliswoman in the Women’s National League, the Kerry native caught Vera Pauw’s eye in her very first home-based training session – or one for players on the fringes of the Ireland squad – and soon found herself elevated to the XI.

Rock solid in defence, McCarthy ended a five-year wait for her sixth international cap in September’s friendly win over Australia.

“At the start of the season I had aims, and one of those aims was to try and get myself back into the Irish squad,” the 24-year-old reflects.  “That starts with Galway week in, week out; training well, playing well and hoping to get the opportunity.

“I got called up to the home-based session and it went from there. It was all or nothing, playing for my life. I was delighted to get rewarded and get called into the Australian camp.”

Not only was she drafted into the squad and immediately catapulted into the starting team, she has retained her place ever since, winning her seventh and eighth caps against Sweden and Finland in last month’s opening World Cup qualifiers.

After being told by Pauw she was starting against the Matlidas, there were some nerves, but they soon faded. “This is why you want to be here,” she remembers thinking to herself, “these are the games you want to be playing.”

“I love playing for Ireland, I love representing that jersey so I was delighted to be back in. I’m just trying to grab it with both hands and enjoy it. I am loving life right now.”

Given the uphill battle McCarthy faced to get to this point, she’s doing just that. Taking nothing for granted, and appreciating every moment.

lynsey-mckey-savannah-mccarthy-and-shauna-brennan-celebrate McCarthy (centre) has been immense for Galway in 2021. Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

As everyone knows, sport is full of highs and lows, and nothing is straightforward or linear. The tougher days often outweigh the good ones, and injuries sometimes take over.

McCarthy’s eyes glaze over as she rewinds the clock.

She traces the start of the difficult road back to when a successful stint at Scottish powerhouse Glasgow City came to a premature end.

She was offered a new contract, but turned it down to return to these shores.

“My Granda was ill, he was dying so he didn’t have that much time to live,” she recalls.

“That opportunity to stay at home and not go back, I don’t regret it, but it was tough. Then my Dad was sick and there was a lot of stuff in between family-wise. Family is important so I don’t regret it.”

Not long after signing for a club closer to home in the form of Cork City, a torn meniscus ruled her out for almost a year.

“I’d get back and I’d be doing okay and then I had an ankle injury and little niggles in between. It was a tough road. For me, it was literally putting my head down and working hard, doing the simple things right and just hoping I got that opportunity.

“Of course you always have doubts. You always think, ‘Is it going to happen for me?’ I’m honoured and delighted to be here.”

As Pauw said last week, and McCarthy agreed, she was “going through the motions” amidst her cruel injury luck, but then the penny dropped and everything changed.

She went that extra mile; from training with boys off her own accord – something Pauw has advocated passionately – to additional gym, nutrition and recovery focus on top of her three club training sessions and weekly match.

“At the start of this season it was just doing everything I could possibly do off the pitch to try and get myself right on the pitch,” McCarthy explains.

“Training with the boys – it’s quick football, they’re naturally quicker and stuff so it helps. I was getting an extra session in with the boys, if not two sessions locally. And my own stuff, gym sessions, just extras that were needed so when I came in here, I’d be the same level as the girls.

“It’s been tough, a lot of work in the end.”

savannah-mccarthy Facing Finland in Helsinki. Source: Kalle Parkkinen/INPHO

But it’s certainly been worth it. It’s all come together, both for club and country, as best seen with her name on the shortlist for 2021 WNL Player of the Year alongside Kylie Murphy and Karen Duggan.

After finishing an up-and-down season on a high with a “massive result” against Peamount United which ultimately denied them three league titles in-a-row, McCarthy has plenty of praise for “fantastic” Tribe boss Stephen Lally who came in mid-season, and moved her from midfield to her favoured centre-half position.

“Wherever they play me I’ll will always try and give 100%,” she adds “That’s the type of player I am. It’s all for the team but I am delighted, it’s been a good season me personally.”

A massive shout must also go to her incredible family — “my number one supporters” — and the encouraging and helpful network around her in the Travelling Community.

“They’ve been great to me on the pitch, off the pitch – especially my family,” she smiles.

“I am happy with my background. I don’t really think about [the changing perception].

“For me it’s just focusing on my football and doing the right thing. Trying to get the young girls in the Travelling Community to see that they can do the same; what I can do, they can do and if you have a dream, just go and follow it. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. Just work hard and I’m sure it’ll happen.”

Of the back of such a successful 2021, McCarthy’s not sure what’s next.


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The lure of playing abroad is never too far away, but she has plenty of other things on her mind right now.

“For me it was literally finishing off this season and seeing what offers I had then,” she nods.  “The main focus is these two games coming up and then taking some time out and thinking what I want to do.”

Her full attention is on this “massive” international window for now, with Group A’s fourth seeds Slovakia coming to Tallaght Stadium tonight, followed by minnows Georgia on Tuesday.

After an impressive 2-1 away win over second seeds Finland, Ireland are in pole position for second spot at the minute and will be hoping for more of the same this evening as they hope to keep their qualification dream as alive as ever.

“We won’t be underestimating them but at the same time we do want and go and win it. It’s not going to be an easy task and hopefully we’ll be ready for that.

savannah-mccarthy-during-the-warm-up McCarthy and Ireland welcome Slovakia to Tallaght Stadium tonight. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“They’re a fantastic team and we know what they’re capable of. They have a lot of threats and we’re just looking forward to the game. Every game, we’re getting better as a team.”

And it’s all about the team, McCarthy concludes, having edged Ireland great Diane Caldwell out of the XI of late. It remains to be seen whether that will be the case once again tonight, but it certainly epitomises the strength and depth in the squad.

As expected, there are no hard feelings between the pair. Only good ones, McCarthy nods, expressing her “huge respect” for the Dubliner and the fact that she’s a player she has always looked up to.

“Anybody on the team could play, it’s obviously who Vera picks on the day and it’s all about the team,” she concludes.

“I remember a few years ago when I was in with the seniors, I’ll never forget it, Diane on the bus. We had a conversation and just the stuff she was saying to me, the encouragement.

“She’s great to everyone, all the young girls. She’s a fantastic player, athlete, and person.”

That makes two of them.

Ireland v Slovakia; Tallaght Stadium, 7pm, live on RTÉ Two.


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