Katie McCabe: ‘Being the only girl playing on a boys team was pretty daunting’

Ireland’s team captain on equality in women’s football and inspiring future generations

Katie McCabe remembers the first time she saw the Republic of Ireland women's football team play. She was 10 years old, and there were only a few dozen spectators on the side of the pitch at the St Patrick's Athletic grounds in Inchicore.

"I remember going down to the edge of the pitch and getting my ticket signed by Emma Byrne, Yvonne Tracy, Ciara Grant. I remember how that made me feel, the importance of it," she says.

Sixteen years later, now as Ireland’s captain, McCabe is determined to keep that remarkable relationship between the fans and the women’s team alive. The team still spends a good chunk of their time post-match waving, signing and talking with young fans, both boys and girls. The interactions, McCabe hopes, will lead to future stars playing for Ireland.

"I think for young people to be able to see their role models, meet their role models, get the signatures, is incredible," she says over Zoom, ahead of the team's World Cup qualifier against Sweden on Tuesday.

“As a team, our fans are so important for us, they are the 12th player, they help us get over the edge and really obviously push us on when we need them.”

'The equal pay deal last year was massive. It wasn't really just about the money. It was more about parity and having equal opportunity and the level playing field that we as women's footballers deserve'

The Republic of Ireland Women’s National Team (WNT), with McCabe at the helm, is the new feel-good story in Irish sports – particularly women’s sports. According to an annual review of admired teams and athletes, the Ireland WNT was the fourth most popular team in Ireland in 2021.

Contributing to the team's rising popularity was the incredible World Cup qualifier against Georgia last November, which saw them score 11 goals, the most ever scored by an Irish team, male or female. McCabe chipped in two herself that night.

Georgia, rooted to the bottom of the table, had little to offer compared with Finland or Sweden, Ireland's two main rivals for qualification in the group. While many queried on social media whether the Irish team should have held back – a critique never put forward in men's football – fans that night were given a glimpse of how Irish football should be played, and were chanting for more goals throughout the 90 minutes.

Born in Kilnamanagh in Dublin, McCabe is one of 11 children, seven girls and four boys. Football fans would know her older brother Gary McCabe, who played in the League of Ireland Premier Division, most notably for Shamrock Rovers during their Europa League group stages in 2011. McCabe and her siblings played a lot of football growing up, but with no girls' team nearby, she kicked around with younger boys, in Kilnamanagh AFC and Crumlin United FC.

At the age of 10 she found a girls' team in Templeogue, followed by a stint at St Joseph's. It was around this time that she attended that first Republic of Ireland women's game, after the FAI gave the club free tickets.

After that, the spark had been lit in McCabe. She transferred to Raheny United when she was a teenager, but league rules didn't allow her to officially sign with them until she was 16. Over the next three seasons she won two league titles and three consecutive FAI Women's Cups with the club. She also played in the Uefa Women's Champions League.

In 2015, she went professional and signed with Arsenal, and after two years of drifting in and out of the starting 11 due to injuries and a loan move to Glasgow, she finally found her place as an attacking left wing back under Joe Montemurro, where she has stayed ever since and continues to dominate, winning league and domestic cups in 2018 and 2019.

Over the course of her career, McCabe has seen growth in the women’s game on and off the field, and she knows the privilege of following in the footsteps of those who made it a greater place. Emma Byrne, former Republic of Ireland and Arsenal goalkeeper, along with many others in this current team, have fought for equality on and off the pitch. Byrne was one of three Irish members of the Arsenal team who won six trophies in one season, a feat only matched by FC Barcelona’s men’s team.

'Being the only girl playing on a boys team was pretty daunting. You've got other boys looking at you thinking, 'Who's this girl turning up here thinking she's better than us''

Byrne was also captain of the Irish squad that fought for equal treatment from the FAI in 2017, highlighting how they were being forced to change in toilets and share tracksuits with underage boys’ teams.

Those days are gone. The Irish WNT have two standalone sponsors in Sky and Cadbury, and are now recipients of equal pay with the Irish men's team in terms of expenses and training and match day fees. McCabe knows how lucky she is to be a professional footballer in every aspect of her career.

“I’ve seen incredibly brave female footballers within our Ireland team, we really stand up for what we deserve. I came into the Ireland team at the time [of the 2017 protest], and I saw incredible leaders who demanded change and equality. The bravery of the whole team at that time was incredible, that’s something that has stuck with me.

“I make sure players coming through now understand where we were to where we are now, and that journey. The equal pay deal last year was massive. It wasn’t really just about the money. It was more about parity and having equal opportunity and the level playing field that we as women’s footballers deserve.”

Part of McCabe’s philosophy is being a role model for future generations. She talks openly about how she copes with life as a professional footballer, encouraging boys and girls to try as much as they can, and to believe in themselves. Along with her younger sister Lauryn, McCabe is currently an ambassador for skincare brand Dove, fronting their new Self-Esteem Project to promote confidence and positive body image among young people.

“It wasn’t always plain sailing growing up,” she says, speaking about her own experience with confidence issues as a teenager. “Being the only girl playing on a boys team was pretty daunting. You’ve got other boys looking at you thinking, ‘Who’s this girl turning up here thinking she’s better than us’. Then, all of a sudden, I’ve got a ball at my feet, and I’m able to score goals and help the team win and earn their respect.

“I love football. It’s always my release. When I have a bad day off the pitch, the minute you step on to the pitch and train, you just forget about that. That’s what it was for me growing up too, it was my release from any stress or bad feelings or bad thoughts I was having.”

She says she has learned valuable life skills on the pitch, from how to lose (“win or learn” is her motto), to working with others, timekeeping and resilience. She is concerned that other young people are missing out on the opportunity to learn the same life skills through extracurricular activities.

Sweden beat Ireland in October thanks to an own goal in the 39th minute, the only loss for the Republic of Ireland out of four qualifiers so far

She references a survey of 405 10-17 year olds carried out for the Dove campaign which found that 70 per cent of girls and 62 per cent of boys in Ireland haven’t attended extracurricular activities because of the way they felt about their appearance. “I think that’s incredible, and something we need to look to change.”

And McCabe is doing what she can. It sounds cliché, but watching the Ireland team play, the connection between players and fans is really noticeable. Tickets are usually priced with families or large groups in mind, and the FAI has broadened out for clubs to go and bring young people.

And, as McCabe says, under manager Vera Pauw, a renowned legend in the Netherlands in the women’s game, the football is excellent attacking football.

The Republic of Ireland women’s team have played four games in their qualification group, a game less than Sweden, who are currently top of the table with 15 points. Ireland are second with seven points, while Finland are a single point behind Ireland with six points, meaning a spot in the playoffs is still a real possibility for the 2023 FIFA World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. If Ireland qualify, it will be their first time ever playing in a major tournament. The stakes are high.

Under the previous management of Colin Bell, the team was defensive, but with Pauw now in charge, they are working on their attack.

“Vera, with the way she likes to play, is being brave on the ball. We’ve got the quality within our squad to be on the ball and, and show the opposition our strengths and create chances,” McCabe says.

“We can obviously defend, but we’re looking to progress on the attack and try win those games now.”

Going into the game against Sweden on Tuesday in Gothenburg, McCabe hopes her team can get the better of the second-best team in the world. Sweden beat Ireland in Tallaght in October thanks to an own goal in the 39th minute, the only loss for the Republic of Ireland out of four qualifiers so far.

“It’s going to be a really, really tough game. We know what’s at stake, what we need to focus on is our strengths. We’ve seen first-hand in Tallaght stadium they’re dangerous, and they’re not second in the world for no reason. It’ll be a really exciting game that we’ll be ready for.”

Joanne O'Riordan

Joanne O'Riordan

Joanne O'Riordan is a contributor to The Irish Times