Amber Barrett dreams of World Cup after parking All-Ireland ambitions
Peamount United striker steeped in Donegal GAA fancies crack at professional game
Amber Barrett made her senior international debut for Ireland against Northern Ireland last September. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Coming from a Donegal family with the deepest of GAA roots, Amber Barrett’s decision last year to step away from playing for her county to focus on her soccer career was, by some distance, the hardest she’d ever had to make. Come the end of the year, though, she knew it had been the right one.
By then she had finished top scorer in the National League with Peamount United, collected the Player of the Year award, co-captained Ireland at the World University Games in Taiwan, before making her senior international debut against Northern Ireland. And, just for good measure, she played her part in that November night in Nijmegen when Ireland held the Netherlands to a scoreless draw.
“You have your dreams,” she says, “but I never dreamt of playing in a World Cup qualifying game against the reigning European Champions in front of 12,000 people. It’s hard to put in to words. I’ll never forget it.”
Little or none of it, she believes, would have been possible if she’d carried on trying to combine Gaelic football with soccer, as well as her final year at NUI Maynooth. Her efforts to keep it all going had taken its toll.
Gaelic has been a huge thing for my family our whole lives, with Dad coaching and the two boys playing for the club. Mum never misses a game
“I hit a wall last year when I came down with glandular fever, it floored me for four to five weeks, that was just me trying to juggle everything while going into my final year in college. Training with Peamount, going home to train with Donegal, I actually didn’t have a life. I was kidding myself that I could do it all. There’d be a weekend where Peamount might have a game in Wexford on the Saturday, then I’d be heading home to play for Donegal in the league on the Sunday. There was no way that was going to work out, I just found myself emotionally drained.”
“Peamount are trying to go to a new level, Donegal ladies are trying to go to a new level, the training requirements and commitment levels means you have to give 110 per cent. I found out that you can’t please everybody. You have to be selfish, at times you have to do what’s best for you even if that means letting someone down. But when I spoke to Michael Naughton, who was the Donegal ladies manager, he was very understanding about my situation, and wished me the best of luck. We ended on good terms.”
That’s not to say the 22-year-old from Milford doesn’t miss the game that has been at the centre of family life since she was a child. Her father Sean Paul, was once the former manager of the Donegal minor team while her brothers Luke and Kane are players with Milford.
“There are times now that I’d love to go out and play even half an hour, you do miss it. Gaelic has been a huge thing for my family our whole lives, with Dad coaching and the two boys playing for the club. Mum never misses a game. There’s still a bit of me that hopes in the future I get the chance to win an All-Ireland with Donegal, but right now I’m very happy with my decision.”
With the All-Ireland dream on the backburner for now, Barrett’s targets for 2018 are trophies with Peamount and World Cup qualification with Ireland.
You’d settle for that?
“I would,” she laughs. “Peamount had a great season last time, but we were beaten to the title in the final game by Wexford Youths, which was agonising. We were so close. But we had such a young squad, at times last year I was our oldest player and I was only 21. Thankfully we’ve got a few players in now who can lift that up.”
Ahead of the new season, which starts on Sunday, Peamount have brought in four internationals, Áine O’Gorman, Claire Walsh and Karen Duggan returning to the club from UCD Waves, and goalkeeper Niamh Reid-Burke joining from Shelbourne.
“And those girls will give us that wee bit of backbone that maybe we were missing, and class too. But other teams have strengthened as well, so competition will be lifted again. Last season we beat Shelbourne 1-0 at home and then got stuffed 5-1 away to Galway the next week. You can’t take your foot off the gas, if you do any team in the league could beat you. And now it’s an eight-team league with the inclusion of Limerick, which is brilliant. This is my fourth season with Peamount and the standard has risen every year, there’s been huge progress. We’ve been back in training since the middle of January, we’re raring to go now, everyone’s buzzing.”
Barrett has a year and a half to go at DCU where she is doing a Masters in education, which includes a teaching placement at a school in Coolock. Once that is completed she would love nothing more than to get the chance to play professionally abroad.
“You have to be ambitious, especially playing with Ireland, and I’m never happy settling for something. There’s bigger and better all the time. I would like to go abroad and test myself against some of the best players in the world. I listen to the Irish players who are abroad, the kind of lifestyles they have, training all the time, they don’t have to worry about everything else, their job is to play football and they couldn’t be happier. Yeah, I’d love to be in that position one day, and I know I can be if I put my mind to it.”
And we showed against the Dutch that we’re well capable of mixing it with the best. We’ve taken huge confidence from that game
But top of the ambition list, for now, is to play for Ireland at the 2019 World Cup in France. There’s a bit of work to be done before that can be achieved, but two wins and a draw from their opening three qualifying games last year gives them more than a decent chance. Four of their remaining five games are at home, starting with next month’s double-header against Slovakia and the Dutch. After that it’s Norway home and away in June, their final group against Northern Ireland in Tallaght in August. (Ireland are currently level on seven points with the Netherlands, one ahead of Norway).
“It’s massive for us to have those four games at home, but we need as many people as we can to turn up and support us. It struck me in the Netherlands how the majority of the crowd was male – usually when you come to our games at home it’s mainly females. They weren’t coming to see ‘the women’, they were coming to see the Netherlands. That’s something we need to instil in Ireland. We want to get as much support as we can, regardless of gender.”
“And we showed against the Dutch that we’re well capable of mixing it with the best. We’ve taken huge confidence from that game. Colin [Bell – the Irish coach] told us at the start he didn’t think this group would go the way everyone thought, with the Netherlands and Norway running away with it. After our first three results I think everyone knows he’s not as mad as he sounded.”