Arsenal goalkeeper is settled and thriving


HOME AND AWAY EMMA BYRNE:HAVING HELPED Arsenal to wrap up another league and cup double over the past couple of weeks, Emma Byrne should be looking forward to a long off-season and a well-earned rest.

Instead, she has just over a month to catch her breath prior to heading to Indiana with the rest of the Irish squad for a summer training camp aimed at maximising the Republic’s chances of qualifying for the 2011 World Cup.

In the meantime, Byrne, from Leixlip, will continue her work at the Arsenal academy where she mixes administrative work with coaching the up-and-coming goalkeepers.

She jokes about getting on a bit herself and is doing her badges so as to carve out a future for herself in the game that will extend beyond her playing days but, at just 29, she looks set to keep her would-be replacements on the sidelines for a few years yet.

The Irish number one joined Arsenal in 2000, following Ciara Grant to the club following an invitation from long-time coach Vic Akers who has just retired from running the team. Since then she’s won seven league titles, six cups, a European title and a string of other trophies so long that she finds it hard to keep count.

So successful has the club been, in fact, that she admits being pushed all the way by Everton this year helped the team to appreciate anew what they had long since taken for granted.

“To be honest, it was becoming slightly boring because in most of the last few years we’ve had the league pretty much wrapped up by Christmas and we’d be planning the victory party for weeks in advance.

“This time it was very different. Everton had beaten us 3-0 at home and we went up there needing to win. I don’t think we expected to really but we got an early goal and just hung on.

“It was great but a bit of a surprise and afterwards it sort of dawned on us that most hadn’t even really brought anything to wear going out to celebrate.”

That just over 2,000 people turned out to the game which was played at Widnes’ rugby league stadium gives some idea of the extent to which the women’s game still lives in the shadows.

But, Byrne points out, there had been 23,000 at Pride Park a week earlier for the cup decider against Sunderland, a sign she, says, of just how much things have moved on during her eight and half years in England.

Before that she had had a brief stint in Denmark after starting out with Leixlip United where her friend’s mother coached the under-12s and stopping off at St Patrick’s Athletic.

Her height, she acknowledges, pretty much made playing in goal inevitable.

“I played outfield sometimes too but I think I was born tall and, apart from when my brothers made me play there in the back garden at home, which I absolutely hated, I’ve never really minded playing there.

“I was picked to play for Ireland by the time I was 14 and the year in Denmark came about because I played over there with an Irish selection when I was 17.

“The club I went to, Fortuna Hjorring, hosted the tournament and the manager asked if I’d like to come over. I was still in school at the time so I couldn’t but a year later I let them know that I might be interested.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t go so well,” she recalls. “I’d wanted to get away and see the world so badly but it never occurred to me that I might end up being homesick.

“The place was a bit out of the way and while most people spoke a fair bit of English communication still seemed hard. It wasn’t helped by the fact that I was slow to pick up the language because pretty soon after getting there it was sort of in my head I’d be leaving again.”

She is, she says, very settled in London now. She lives a short walk from the club’s St Albans training ground and lives a comfortable life even if it does not quite involve the sort of affluence associated with the men’s game.

“Yeah, obviously it’s nothing like that but we don’t want for anything. We earn enough to buy our cars and get by pretty well. I’m only renting where I live but that’s more to do with really not knowing where you’re going to be in the long term.”

Arsenal would appear to be the most likely place but three games with Ireland in the United States last summer prompted interest from professional US outfit, the Boston Breakers and Byrne doesn’t rule a move if the right offer came along.

“I’m happy at Arsenal and Vic says he wants us to sign our new contracts before heading away in case anyone tries to sign us so hopefully that will be sorted out over the next few weeks.

“The thing with Boston was ongoing for a while after they made an approach last year, though, and the idea is tempting.

“The league is full-time there and a lot of the best players in the world are over there so it would be a bit of step up but I’m not sure that when you weighed everything up there’d be enough to persuade me to give up what I have here. Not,” she concludes, “for the moment anyway.”