Republic of Ireland defender Louise Quinn has been one of the punditry stars of a groundbreaking World Cup for women's football. But she won't be satisfied until she has starred in one on the pitch. The Arsenal stalwart won't back away from a challenge, having had to completely change her playing style to become an integral part of a star-studded multinational side now chasing Champions League glory.
How could a Women’s World Cup be even better than one the country has been able to watch and follow in all its duration and wonder? Same way that you could have had an even better season than winning the biggest domestic league in all of Europe.
If Ireland had been there in France.
Louise Quinn has become a more recognised figure over the last year, from her performances with English Super League champions Arsenal, her ambassadorial work with the 20x20 campaign, and now as a member of RTE’s revolving studio panel covering the World Cup.
Yet, be honest, have you yet seen her play? Do you feel you know her game, the way you now appreciate Ellen White’s finishing, Megan Rapinoe’s dynamism on and off the field, or indeed the netkeeping magnificence of Irish hockey’s Ayeisha McFerran after London last summer?
Quinn’s dream — plan — for this summer was to be with her friends and team-mates, playing in the finest stadia France has to offer, not in a TV studio.
“The tournament has been a huge step for the game so it’s been brilliant just to be part of it in some way. I mean, having every game there free for people in Ireland to see is just incredible. But there’s still that disappointment there. Even jealousy. A lot of my [Arsenal] team-mates are over there and of course it’s going to be the talk of the dressing room as soon as we’re all back.”
Naturally, there’ll be the England contingent. Beth Mead was one of the tournament’s leaders in assists, providing the cross for White’s equaliser in the epic semi-final against the US last Tuesday night, while Quinn’s regular central defence partner, 22-year-old Leah Williamson, got some game-time in the Lionesses’ heated last-16 game against Cameroon.
And three of Quinn’s club-mates are part of the Dutch squad that has won its way through to tomorrow evening’s final.
The women’s professional club game, including Arsenal’s, is now almost as diverse and international as its male equivalent, though one distinction between Unai Emery’s squad and Joe Montemurro’s is that the latter still upholds the club’s long tradition of featuring Irish players; Katie McCabe was another important contributor to the title-winning side.
Quinn even knows some of the Swedish team who were edged out by the Dutch in last Wednesday’s semi-final. For a few years she played with Eskilstuna United, even captaining them in the Champions League. How was her Swedish? Not as good as their English, but between them they’d make it work; it helping that she was able to pick up what she terms “football Swedish” as well as some of its curse words. When Jackie Groenan finally broke the deadlock for the Dutch the other night, Quinn quips that she didn’t need a mic or a lip reader to know the Swedish girls were uttering ‘dra a helvete’.
It’s a sport that has taken her a good bit around the world and travelled some distance itself, even though it has a fair bit to go yet and hasn’t yet taken her to the stage and platform that she yearns.
The month before last when she returned to Blessington after winning the WSL with Arsenal, waiting for her was a congratulations card from a neighbour, Una McLoughlin, who used to coach her back when she was just 10 years old. Inside was the greeting, “You’ve come so far from the fields filled with cow dung!”
Quinn was born in Blessington the same summer that another Gunner centre-half, David O’Leary, finally got to play and star in a major tournament — indeed she was born the same day that Eamon Dunphy famously threw his pen over the poverty of Ireland’s display against Egypt — and though Italia 90 would popularise the game nationwide, Quinn’s experience coming through the ranks illustrates how the sport wasn’t necessarily equipped for such an explosion.
Although she thought nothing of initially playing for Blessington Boys — her pinned tweet is of a note from a teacher when she was seven, applauding how “you’re better than any boy!” — before transferring to Lakeside Girls and then Dublin powerhouse Peamount United, there was still no national league by the time she made the senior national team. It’s still hard to fathom that while a sport like basketball had a national league as far as back as the late 1970s, soccer had to wait until 2011, which Peamount duly won, with Quinn as captain.
“Before that it was just a Dublin league. You played every Monday night. And at times the quality was brilliant with some great games. But at the same time it was very disorganised. The other team might not be able to field a starting 11. The national league helped raise the standard of everything because you had to meet certain criteria. But it is incredible alright to think how long it took for it [to be founded].”
The pathway is much better now. A national league, with also the option to play abroad, maybe after graduating here like Quinn herself did in sports management in UCD. Growing up she didn’t really aspire to being a pro but when a teammate suggested she should put a highlight reel together, she locked herself into an editing suite in Carlow IT where she was taking another course and put together something good enough to impress Eskilstuna. With the help of their Irish centre-half, they would become one of the leading teams in Sweden in just a few years, but Quinn still had to claim social welfare here in the summer after the season had ended.
Then within weeks of joining Notts County in the summer of 2017, they wound up. Even when she was soon snapped up by Arsenal, the transient and unstable nature of the sport affected her for a considerable part of that first season.
“I hadn’t settled in. I didn’t feel good with where I was. It got to the stage where I wasn’t enjoying my football as much. And that wasn’t necessarily because I wasn’t playing. There was a lot of change. Just being in a new city, being around new people. I’m a real homebird and I can go through patches where it’s really tough being away from home, especially when football isn’t going well.
“And on top of that then there was a lot going on with the FAI. It made you question your involvement in the sport and think: ‘Maybe I need to sort something out and do something else.’ But then I didn’t know anything else and at the end of the day didn’t want to do anything else.”
What added to the turmoil was that Quinn was being asked to play a different way. By nature she was more a Mick McCarthy than a David O’Leary, only her coach’s idea of a centre-half wasn’t the same as Jack Charlton’s. Instead it was more akin to Arsene Wenger’s.
Quinn had to either adapt or die. So which did she? Well, adapting meant at first dieing a little on the training ground.
“There was a lot of messing things up and failing,” she says. “You’d have a shit training session one day because none of those passes you’d be trying out were working out. But the next day you’d just work on it again.”
Such a process required exceptional patience and perseverance from coach as well as player. Thankfully it was forthcoming from Montemurro.
“The coach made the effort to know me. And he knew that it wasn’t so much that it wasn’t because I wasn’t good or I couldn’t do it, it was just that at that particular time I wasn’t getting it right. But he kept encouraging me and we’d just keep going through it. If a drill broke down, he’d just stop and make me do it again. And again. He didn’t doubt me that way. He knew that I was giving it 100% all the time. I’d exhaust myself to make sure to get it right and break into that starting 11.”
The end result was a transformation as remarkable as what Tony Adams underwent under Wenger. Just as Adams’ crowning moment would be scoring that goal against Everton minutes before lifting the 1998 crown, Quinn would finish the season as a league champion and leading the league with the highest percentage of completed passes.
“The growth of Louise, she’s unbelievable,” Montemurro would tell The42.ie upon Arsenal winning the title. “She’s a ball-playing centre back now [as well as] with the attributes in the air, plus the tackling, plus the positioning. In 12 months she’s developed into a world-class defender.”
What helped as well was that she and her Irish team-mates prevailed when making that stand against the FAI. It might be already history to the public and to even some of her younger national teammates but Quinn has made a point to remind them of what the likes of Emma Byrne stood for, just as she’s quick to remind her Dutch and English teammates what Byrne and other Irish players did and won for Arsenal.
“At first you’d doubt yourself,” she says. “’Do we actually deserve this? Are we speaking out of turn? Are people going to say we’re asking for too much?’ Some of the results hadn’t been the best. We were all so nervous. Some of the girls were even shaking as they spoke about it. But you could see after five minutes that the reception from the public and media was going to be positive towards us.”
Things have improved massively since. Kit is no longer an issue. You no longer have to change in airport toilets. Players based here can get compensation to take time off work. The access to gym facilities like Abbotstown is in keeping with other high-performance teams in the country, and not that removed from the state-of-the-art gyms she uses at Arsenal. Colin Bell may no longer be manager but there can be no change or drop in standards of support and prep.
“It all has to stay. No way can we take a step backwards. The World Cup has shown — seven of the eight teams that made the quarter-finals were European. We can’t fall behind any of them.”
Ireland actually held finalists Holland to a draw in their qualification campaign, frustrating the 12,000 attendance in Nijmegen. But they’d lose the return game 2-0 in Tallaght and lose both games to eventual quarter-finalists Norway to slip to third in the group.
“Looking back, it was a very strong group but overall we’re still a bit off that level. We’ve got to be taking points from the other teams.”
Germany, another side who reached the last eight of this month’s World Cup, are among the teams in Ireland’s Euro qualifiers group, but Quinn remains certain that Ireland can emerge from that pool, edging the likes of Greece, Montenegro, Ukraine, and if needs be, the Germans themselves.
“The next goal has to be qualification for the Euros and I think we are in position to do that. We just need to keep developing and pushing on as we have been and not take our eye off the goal. I don’t have anything else in mind but to just get to the Euros.”
She was able to get some downtime after winning the league, taking in a holiday in Valencia, before returning to Blessington and catching up with family and old friends like Una McLoughlin who remembers those cowpatches back when she was starting out. Pre-season training resumes next Monday week with Arsenal who have European ambitions of their own, aiming to make a run in the Champions League.
And there, ready for pre-season duty with or without some of her teammates that got to play in France, will be Quinn, mad for more.
Ask her how she’d like her teammates to view her and she’ll say, “For my dedication to training and improving. Just constantly giving it everything, in every drill, run, game.”
She’s not going to change now.
“I’ve had have my rough patches when things have been shit but I’m just relishing the competition and how after all the setbacks and failures how I was able to persevere and overcome it.”
If she can’t see it, she can’t be it, the 20x20 slogan goes. Quinn already is it. And now that our eyes have been opened, we should be able to see it.