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'She is a top, top star. I hope the ceiling is not there yet and she is growing and growing'

That captain Katie McCabe is fit to lead Vera Pauw’s Ireland out tomorrow is a massive boost.

Katie McCabe with Vera Pauw at Ireland training.
Katie McCabe with Vera Pauw at Ireland training.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THAT KATIE MCCABE is fit to lead Vera Pauw’s Republic of Ireland out at Tallaght Stadium tomorrow night is a huge relief.

The Girls In Green face Slovakia in a crunch World Cup qualifier, as they look to keep their bid to reach a first-ever tournament firmly on track.

After a monumental away win over higher-ranked Finland and a narrow home defeat to Group A’s top seeds Sweden, Pauw’s side are in pole position for second spot, at least.

In her own words, they’re targetting “winning — and at least not losing,” though three points would of course be preferable.

Left-sided star McCabe is Ireland’s captain and leader, a key driving force for this team with bucket loads of talent and ability.

Her start to the Women’s Super League [WSL] season with Arsenal has been simply scintillating, right up to her involvement in both goals in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Manchester United.

The Dubliner provided another assist and scored the penalty she won, though was left feeling the after-effects of the foul by United’s Aoife Mannion. Pauw revealed today that there were “doubts” after “a knock on the foot,” though she’s been cleared to play.

Having a fit and firing McCabe is “crucial,” she added, noting: “She is so influential, our captain, the leader of this squad and we all see the influence she has in play. She makes things happen.”

The fact that the Kilnmanagh native is still only 26 is quite scary.

She’s well and truly established herself as a world-class player at Arsenal over the past few seasons, and has been a star turn for Ireland since long before taking the captaincy at the tender age of 21.

How much more is there to come?

“I hope a lot,” Pauw smiles. “I hope the ceiling is not there yet and that she is growing and growing. Especially in the maturity of her game.

“Before, there were moments where she could not identify yet whether to stay away or dive in; whether to dribble, hold it or pass; now she has matured so much under pressure at Arsenal in the WSL, that her task in our team has developed, and we can all see how she has become a top, top star.

“She was a coming star, it’s not that she’s just in it now. Everyone could see where Katie could go. Her performances at Arsenal is credit especially to her club. It is good that she is so open for different roles here, and that she does everything to get the best role for her in this team.

“Every team is built around a few very, very good players, and she is more visible that others, and she is doing that really well.”

vera-pauw Vera Pauw. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

Utilised anywhere along the left flank for both club and country, McCabe’s positioning has come under the spotlight quite a lot in recent times.

It’s certainly an ongoing debate since former Gunners boss Joe Montemurro transformed her from her natural left winger to a left-back.

While she’s been moved around a lot for club and for country, she’s been deployed more as a left-wing back recently, and has settled into the position nicely. But where is her best role?

Pauw laughs, and returns the question: “Do you know?

“She doesn’t know. We don’t know. Our team, at the moment, this is the best role to get the best out of her. Of course, we want her further forward. She is already more further forward, against Finland, we managed that.

“That is the growth of a mature player; that she feels the moments that she’s getting [forward] without neglecting her task as a winger. As long as we play this way, this is the best position for her – that we get the most out of here, that she is the most important for this squad.

“I would like to highlight that it is possible that she goes further forward because of the back-up and the cover that she has from the players that are less visible. Katie is the motivation for players, she gives something extra but others make it possible that she can do that. That’s the togetherness that has grown into our squad. If she’s losing the ball, before, that could be a real problem, but now we have immediate back-up behind her so she can take more risks going forward. That is key to why she is performing now here, at a higher level now than when we started. The back up of her has grown.”

The new addition to the back three on the left side, Savannah McCarthy, and defensive midfielder Megan Connolly are two Pauw hints at in that regard.

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She also offered her reasoning behind playing Florida State University star Heather Payne up top, as opposed to on the wing.

heather-payne Heather Payne. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“We play her up front because of her pace and directness towards the goal. She, in the balance, is not a striker, she disrupts the defence with her pace and ability to break through.”

On two headline newcomers to the squad this week, the Dutch coach also had a word for goalkeeper Megan Walsh, and 16-year-old sensation Jessie Stapleton.

“She is jumping into a squad that is already on a fast train going forward,” Pauw said of Walsh, who played for England underage and is currently Brighton’s number one.

“She is doing really well. She needs to become part of the team but that’s the same with every player coming in to us. She is delighted, and we officially handed over her passport this week after the clearance of Fifa, and she is part of us now.

“The goalkeepers are improving very much at the moment. The fact that we now have four goalkeepers from the WSL in our core group available, that’s something that you couldn’t dream of.”

And Stapleton, who has established herself as a prodigious player over the past few years? “We have had an eye on her for a long time already, like everybody. She is doing so well in the league. She is developing and playing in a mature way. You wouldn’t believe she is only 16. On the other hand, a defender needs experience, and that is why she was not yet in the team and players like Aoibheann [Clancy] and Ellen [Molloy] were.”

“Jessie’s done brilliant this season,” Jamie Finn reflected on her former Shelbourne team-mate, who was nominated for Young Player of the Year, earlier this week. “I’m delighted for her to be called in here. Now, she can come in and show what she can do.”

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Emma Duffy

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