by Louise Quinn.
Playing for the Republic of Ireland always filled us up with pride. Never in doubt. Pull on the green jersey and you would be bursting to get onto the pitch. We just needed our association to back us where it really counted. When we, finally, felt their support – actual change along with increased access to tremendous facilities in Abbotstown, comparable to what I’ve been very lucky to experience at Arsenal – something special happened.
They are connected. Now we want to keep that going.
Results, naturally enough, have been impressive during this qualification campaign. Since we had our long night of mediation.
Everyone needed that to happen.
Playing for your country should be all about results. Having to focus on anything else is a distraction. The priority has always been to qualify for a major tournament but until recently that as a reality seemed so far away.
We began to expect more of ourselves after the events that transpired in the early months of 2017. We need to make sure that negotiations between the FAI, SIPTU and the PFAI was not for nothing because too many girls put their necks on the line; women like Áine O’Gorman, who is still playing, but also Emma Byrne, who subsequently retired after 21 years in an Ireland jersey.
”None of us could stomach Emma's sacrifice being in vain. We can never allow that. A standard has been set. We always fought for the cause but now we are driven by a desire to ensure our performances never drop below the new expectations.
All that went before can be used as motivation. We deserve the basic support any serious international squad – male or female – requires to be successful.
Drawing with the European champions in Holland was a result that we want to build on, not just savour. It wasn’t a one off. Beating Slovakia met our expectations and next comes two matches against Norway to make the play-offs for the World Cup, for France 2019.
We are improving all the time. It’s showing, especially the home based girls because of the training camps, which makes all that happened – standing in front of the media and seeking mediation with the FAI – worthwhile. I was at the recent training sessions in Abbotstown with our manager Colin Bell. The professionalism of the set-up is evident in recent performances. Colin has made a real difference but we have placed more demands on how we perform as well.
”The long night of April 5th/6th was a watershed moment for women's soccer in Ireland.
It also proved a massive bonding experience for the squad. In a really positive way, we keep referring back to ‘The Talks’. There are girls new to the squad who have to be told about it; they need to know what legends of women’s football like Emma Byrne did for us all, especially now she has retired we have to repay all those years Emma sacrificed for us to be where we are now.
Emma was a massive reason all of this came to pass. We finally got it right with the help of the PFAI representing us but Emma left her mark as a great goalkeeper – of course she wanted to achieve more – but she has also left a mark off the field. That’s a legacy we must live up to.
Again, winning is how we do this. Same as it has always been when a player – man or woman – pulls on the green jersey. We are not reinventing the wheel we just want the wheel to build up some momentum.
That night definitely made us a tighter group. We were sitting in a hotel room negotiating until 3.30am for what we believed were basic rights for an international football squad in this day and age.
The mediation was tough but what I will always remember is we remained united throughout an exhausting process. We, the Ireland football squad, despite the group including amateur players based at home and professionals playing abroad, refused to be divided.
Such unity of purpose will always stay with me. Such a bond is hard to break on or off the field.
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The Irish team has always had a strong camaraderie but now there’s a little bit extra. As I said, there’s a lot of young girls in the squad now – really gifted players like Tyler Toland who will drive it on – but we have to keep explaining to them what happened. They need to understand how we got to this point. We are like their mothers, ‘In our day we got all this and that was sorted for YOU!’
But seriously, we do tell them about the longest of nights so they know how we stood up for each other.
To keep a clean sheet in front of 12,000 Dutch fans showed the bond had been cemented. We built a wall on the edge of our box in Nijmegen. It wasn’t pretty – the great Irish draws rarely are – but we are very comfortable, well, I certainly am, with the attitude: come and break us down if you can.
I was so happy that the strength of character we showed meeting with the FAI was translated into a result against the nation who only three month previous had been crowned champions of Europe.
The cherry on top was the four Dutch girls at Arsenal. They didn’t enjoy the banter when I returned to London. Katie McCabe wasn’t at that first session back so it was just me rubbing salt in the wounds. They did beat us 2-nil in Tallaght last April so what goes around comes around, but at least we are on the carousel.
We had grown frustrated watching other countries pass us by. Like Iceland. In 2008 we made the play-offs for the Euros and had to play – and this is no joke – on an ice rink in Iceland. It was dangerous, rock solid pitch that somehow they managed to skate across. The point is they only just beat us but that’s where we stayed as Iceland pushed on and played in major tournaments. The smallest investigation told us they had the backing of their association. We had players of the same standard, if not superior, so we know we can compete at the highest level. We just needed the support.
Now, as soon as you finish an Ireland camp there is excitement to get back amongst the girls. You count down the days. That wasn’t always the case. I’m talking in a football sense. Nothing else, we have always loved being together, but we used to be the almost team. We almost got a result against Germany. We almost qualified.
Last year we delivered valuable points against Holland and Slovakia to put us in contention to make it to France 2019.
We love to defend. We crave that pressure. My family were telling me how nervous they were watching the Dutch game as they kept coming with wave after attacking wave but I felt great, because defending is something we are good at. Sounds so Irish, but that’s the foundation we are building upon.
We were distraught after losing 2-0 to them in Tallaght. Not because it was a backward step, it wasn’t, because we played better football than the park-the-bus draw in Holland, but we could have scored. We had chances. The base is to get our defence nailed on and see what happens up top.
Our confidence remains intact. The younger girls have no fear. They just want to play football.
All of us want to get results. Norway back-to-back provides difficulties getting from Dublin to Stavanger in three days but at least the focus narrows to beating one team (ideally twice).
We used to be nervous going into the unknown. That’s gone now under Colin. We do as much work analysing the opposition as we do on the training ground. He gives us homework. Football homework.
This is what I mean. The easy excuses are being erased one by one. Abbotstown is a brilliant set-up, with a good gym in the Institute of Sport.
Similar to Arsenal’s twenty metre walk from grass to gym, ten metres to the restaurant. The first team are visible, the academy boys are around us too, with Arsene Wenger walking into the gym during preseason. Jack Wilshere was forever there doing prehab to avoid injury.
I got to Arsenal via Blessington, Peamount United, UCD (Mam and Dad, Jacinta and Pat, made sure I got a degree in Sports and Exercise Management before turning pro), Eskilstuna United in Sweden and all too briefly at Notts County, until they folded up for financial reasons before my first season really got going.
In 2011 I captained Peamount into the Champions League where we faced Paris Saint-Germain. Instantly, I wanted more of that level. I was established in the Ireland team by then, having made my debut age 17. Noel King liked me as a player, but he also saw my determination to get back fit after a serious hip injury, so I was fast-tracked through underage teams to the senior squad. I was very lucky to be a part of the same group as Olivia O’Toole, Yvonne Tracy, Ciara Grant, Sharon Boyle and of course Emma Byrne. This was ten years ago and the process of becoming a regular starter was a slow, but a hugely valuable time for me to grow as a footballer. Olivia is a legend of Irish football. Even playing against her she would be helping me to improve as a defender. I mean literally helping me. I’d track her run, put in a tackle and getting up off the ground she’d say, ‘Good tackle Lou but next time maybe…’
Some of the Irish girls were playing in Germany and at Arsenal but after UCD I did the football course in Carlow IT as Ger Dunne, currently the FAI Head Performance Analyst, told me I’d be training three days a week with the lads. ‘If you can deal with that you’ll be able to handle the demands of going abroad to play.’
One of my good mates, Fiona O’Sullivan, a California-born Irish international, put me in touch with an agent. I had to swallow any fear about moving to a foreign country despite a form of dyslexia that makes it difficult to learn languages. So, off the pitch, it took a while to adapt during my four years in Sweden. On the pitch I was grand as our coach took most of the sessions in English.
At Eskilstuna I was playing at a high standard – coming up against great players like Brazil’s Marta – so my international performances naturally improved. Eskilstuna was everything I like about a club – we played progressive football, built around a solid culture and most importantly the community was involved with 6,000 at some games. In my last season, 2016, we played in the Champions League eventually losing to German club Wolfsburg.
I moved to England to progress my career and get closer to home. Notts County came in for me. Clubs not tightly attached to the men’s team or if they are not in the Premier League can fall into a precarious financial position very quickly. I learned this the hard way. There was talk of a few problems before I arrived but the new owner, Alan Hardy, took over, signing me and another girl with the rest of the squad getting their contracts renewed. Players were set up with work, study and apartments. I was there about twelve weeks when the text came on a Thursday night before the Spring series started (we were supposed to play Arsenal on the Sunday): ‘Training is cancelled. Can you come into the offices [in the stadium.].’ Training doesn’t get cancelled, it gets rescheduled, so our heads were spinning; maybe they will make us go semi-professional. After five minutes our captain and other senior players came out of the room crying. We went into a meeting with people we’d never met before (the chairman had a family emergency and couldn’t be there) to be told the women’s team was gone. It was devastating. English club football was the ultimate challenge for me at that moment in my career. I wanted to play against all these big sides and big names. The new owner had gone through the books and the women’s team was folded up (it’s since been reformed).
I was very lucky as before the day was over my agent had me at Arsenal. I felt terrible for the other girls. I felt guilty but, seemingly, this is part of the game. I packed my bags and moved to north London.
The season ended with an FA Cup final at Wembley against Chelsea in front of 45,000 and a live television audience. My ricocheted header proved the injury-time winner to beat Everton in the semi-final (most of what I do in football involves heading the ball – true story: give me a tap in and I’ll accidentally flip the ball onto my head to get it over the line). The cup final was a disappointing defeat but I’ll always remember the experience. It gave me a real taste to get back there. It was also a bit weird. You hear the crowd, you see them, but it’s like they are not really there. When the goals went in or you put in an important tackle a wall of sound reverberates that seems almost unreal.
That game was a glimpse into how special women’s football could become, and not just at Arsenal but in Ireland too.
Ultimately, it all comes back to the green jersey. You go abroad so you can succeed at international level. I am playing professionally but my dream has always been to represent Ireland at a major tournament.
Hopefully we can keep a fully fit squad. We need some luck but it’s a massive barrier we have already overcome having lost Áine, Stephanie Roche, Harriet Scott and Tyler, who may only be 16 but she’s a starter for us already, before the April matches.
We coped because everyone has a professional mindset now. Colin has nurtured that. He is a winner. We still want to win our group, and if not, we want that play-off spot to make the World Cup. This sentence alone shows the distance our Irish football team has come in the last year and half. That’s massive.
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