Katie McCabe ready to take shot at history in 2018

After a year of turbulence and triumph for the Irish women’s team, skipper Katie McCabe is relishing the chance to make history in 2018.

Katie McCabe ready to take shot at history in 2018

It has become one of the defining images of Irish sporting success in 2017: the Irish senior women’s team joyously celebrating in their dressing room after holding the Netherlands to a scoreless draw in a World Cup qualifier in Nijmegen in November.

The soundtrack to which the girls in green bounced up and down and sang along was Rihanna’s We Found Love (In A Hopeless Place).

Appropriately so, since going into the game few would have given the Irish much chance away to the European champions who had their magic three of Mediema, Martens, and Van der Sanden — think Neymar-Suarez-Messi — all on the pitch, as well the backing of a full house whose only doubts before kick off would have concerned not if, but how many, their team would score.

Making an already tough task even more daunting for the visitors was the enforced absence of a number of key players, including Stephanie Roche, Aine O’Gorman, and, unfortunately, ruled out with a long-term injury, Megan Campbell, she of the prodigious long throw which has become such an effective weapon in Ireland’s attacking armoury. As skipper Katie McCabe puts it: “It’s like having corners all the way up the pitch.”

But, despite the odds being stacked against them, a hugely disciplined defensive performance — coupled with a few dollops of luck and one big penalty appeal for the home side which, much to their dismay and to Irish relief, was dismissed by the referee — saw Colin Bell’s team hold out to make it three games unbeaten in their 2019 World Cup campaign, after successive 2-0 wins away to Northern Ireland and Slovakia.

“Our first camp with Colin was in March for the Cyprus Cup and one of the first things he said was that if you don’t concede, you always have chance of winning,” says McCabe.

“That stuck with us and we’ve thrived on it: we haven’t conceded at all in the three games we’ve played in World Cup qualification. He has a lot of experience from Europe and knows the opposition players really well.

"He’s very thorough and makes sure we know all the finer details and we’re always prepared for whatever we’re up against.

“So we already knew the Dutch well, and we analysed them again coming into the game. The way Colin approached it, the way we went about it, it showed it was the best possible way to get the point. We shut up shop.

"I know they came close, hit the post and had a couple cleared off the line by Tyler (Toland). And Marie Hourihane has been fantastic filling Emma Byrne’s boots in goal. But it was a massive result for us.”

Hence, those raucous dressing room celebrations. Of course, this being post-Keano Ireland, there were those who rather haughtily questioned if a scoreless draw — even away to the best team in Europe — should ever be the cause for such unrestrained joy.

“Yeah, we got slated a bit for that, actually,” says Katie. “I saw the criticism but, to be honest, I think if people have been following us from day one, they’ll understand what it meant. Obviously, the men’s team have qualified a number of times for Euros and World Cups.

"We never have, and this result has probably put us in the best possible position to do so. If people had been in the stadium and seen our little cluster of green in among 12,000 orange shirts, you’d have realised how much it meant, to get a point off the European champions in their own backyard, in front of all their fans.

“I’ve been training with Miedema at Arsenal and there’s no doubt that the Dutch were miffed about that result. I just think everyone underestimates little old Ireland, you know? And I don’t mind being an underdog.

"I know our ability and what we’re capable of. We’re up four places in the Fifa rankings now. We’re climbing, we’re making progress, we’re getting there.”

After the game, FAI chief John Delaney came into the dressing room to congratulate the players, a scenario which would have seemed very distant back in April when the women’s team made front page headlines, not for their football, but because they felt they had no alternative but to go public with a list of grievances about their treatment by the FAI — including the shocking fact that a shortage of suitable training gear meant that, on returning from away games, they had to change in airport toilets and hand back their kit.

“It was disappointing that we had to take that stance,” Katie McCabe says now. “We never wanted to but we had to do right by women’s football at the time.

"You couldn’t turn a blind eye to the tracksuit situation and stuff like that. But, ever since, things have improved continuously between us and the FAI.

"It’s still ongoing but we’re really happy with what the FAI took on board. The training camps have been fantastic. We really needed a week to prepare for that game against the Netherlands and the FAI backed us on that.”

And out of that adversity back in April has also come a deepening of the bond between the players.

“Yeah, and I think you can see that on the pitch as well,” she says. “We’ve shown we’ve got a good, tight-knit group going forward and that’s helped us get those results. And we’ll be hoping now to sustain that group effect going into 2018.”

On a personal level, 2017 has also been a momentous year for Katie McCabe. Now 22, she was still only 21 when new manager Colin Bell took her completely by surprise by appointing her captain as successor to legendary goalkeeper Emma Byrne after the latter’s retirement.

“I was a newbie to the squad,” says Katie. “I was only in the team about a year and a half, after Sue (Ronan) first brought me in 2015 and I got my first competitive cap that September. So I would still have classed myself as a young wan when Colin asked me. It was a shock to the system, really, because I never expected to be asked to be captain at such a young age.”

Not that Katie is one to be easily fazed.

“When I first came into the squad, all the girls used to give me a bit of stick because I wasn’t quiet, you know? I’d have the craic and wouldn’t be afraid to speak up. They used to call me a cocky kid. But I’ve never been a captain before so helping the communication between the staff and the players is all new to me. And doing more media stuff.

“But it’s not just off the pitch. It was important that I showed what I could do on the pitch and, in the few games we had prior to him asking me to be captain, I think Colin saw what I could do for the team.

“I see being captain as a real positive now but I was gutted with Emma going because I looked up to her as a role model over the years.

"She was a leader on and off the pitch. And in my first year at Arsenal as well she was terrific in helping me find my feet there. But I keep in touch with her, she’s only a phone call away.

"And I even have Robbie Keane on the phone if I ever need advice from him. He congratulated me when the news was announced.

"To have a guy like Robbie phone you up like that was something you’d never think would happen. I’d watched him scoring goals for fun for Ireland for years and here he was ringing me up to say ‘well done’. It was surreal.”

The last 12 months have also seen changes in Katie’s club situation, injury and lack of game time at Arsenal seeing her go out on loan to Glasgow City where she duly played her part in helping the club to an astonishing 11th league title in succession.

With her contract with the Gunners up this month, it’s possible that she’ll be on the move again but, as a naturally gifted, creative, attacking footballer — traits she shares with her childhood idol Damien Duff and her older brother, Gary, whose skills have illuminated the League of Ireland for a number of years — it’s safe to say that if she does leave North London, she won’t be lacking for offers in Britain and Europe.

And, of course, playing regularly at club level is more important than ever now for Katie, with Ireland’s chances of qualifying for the 2019 World Cup finals in France in such good health as they sit joint top of the table on points with the Netherlands.

There’s still a long way to go, mind, with formidable Norway to be played home and away in what might well prove a crunch double-header in June and, before that, the Dutch due here in April.

Only the seven group winners qualify automatically, with the four best runners-up having to contest semi-final and final play-offs.

“They’ve made it pretty hard, alright,” Katie concedes. “But I’m confident going into the New Year. We’ll be well prepared for the games against Slovakia and the Netherlands in April.

We’ve two games then, two more in June and our final game is here against Northern Ireland in September. We’ll take each game as it comes but if we do qualify, what a way to finish it off: against Northern Ireland in Tallaght.”

Being that the Kilnamanagh native is happy to describe herself as a “Tallaght head”, the prospect of creating history in her own backyard, in front of family and friends, is tantalising.

“I’m proud of where I come from and to lead the team out in your home town would be unbelievable,” she reflects. “It would be an indescribable feeling to captain my country to our first major tournament.”

Katie McCabe pauses and smiles at the thought.

“Wait’ll you see the footage in the changing rooms then.”

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