Byrne to the fore as Arsenal complete quadruple
Sportswoman of the Year April award, Arsenal's Emma Byrne: When she was playing Gaelic football for Leixlip a decade or so ago…
Sportswoman of the Year April award, Arsenal's Emma Byrne:When she was playing Gaelic football for Leixlip a decade or so ago, Emma Byrne's preferred position was in midfield.
When she then took up soccer at Coláiste Chiaráin in her home town, she "played anywhere but in goals" at first, but when the goalkeeper went on holidays "they stuck me in there because I played Gaelic".
When the goalkeeper returned her place was gone: "They wouldn't let me out."
She has, says Byrne, "been between the sticks ever since".
The accidental goalkeeper has no reason to rue her positional switch, especially after the phenomenal season she has just experienced with Arsenal, the club she joined in 1998.
On Sunday, Arsenal completed the quadruple when they beat Charlton 4-1 in the FA Cup final, played in front of a record crowd of 25,000 in Nottingham. Having already won the Premier League, League Cup and Uefa Cup, Sunday's success meant Arsenal completed the clean sweep of the season's honours.
Their Uefa Cup triumph last month was the highlight. Their defeat of two-time European champions Umea of Sweden, the only full-time professional women's team in Europe, over two legs (1-0 on aggregate), made Arsenal the first English team to win the competition - and Byrne and her international team-mate Ciara Grant the first Irish players to collect Uefa Cup winners medals.
Clean sheets in both legs earned Byrne the plaudits. "Emma was fantastic in both games," said Arsenal manager Vic Akers. "Her handling was superb in the first leg (they won 1-0 in Sweden), she was our best performer, and she has done it again for us (in the second leg)."
By the time they met Umea, Arsenal had played 19 league games, won 19, scored 107 goals and conceded seven. That degree of inactivity made her displays against Umea all the more impressive.
"I think I might have touched the ball maybe 50 times in the whole league season, then 20 times in the first 10 minutes against Umea," said the 27-year-old.
It was the latest in a huge collection of trophies the Republic of Ireland goalkeeper, regarded as the finest in Europe, has won with the club she joined after two seasons with Fortuna Hjorring in Denmark.
She is now employed full-time at the London club, coaching the goalkeepers in its girls' academy, having earned her coaching badges under the supervision of Eamon Collins - "one of the best coaches I've ever had" - when, like Grant, she did the Fás football course in Leixlip as a teenager.
After completing her club season, Byrne will be back on international duty with Ireland later this month when they play Italy at home (May 30th) in a European Championship qualifier, having opened their campaign with a win over Hungary in Dublin last month.
"We've improved unbelievably since Noel (King, the coach) came in," said Byrne, "everything - the way the FAI have helped us, the training and the standard of kids coming through is so impressive."
She spends much of her time trying to dispel notions about her status as a full-time footballer.
"People seem to think that we're really rich, which is pretty bad when they expect you to buy all the rounds.
"It's just like a normal job, it's just average pay, but it's easier for us because we're doing what we love."
MONTHLY WINNERS SO FAR: January -Marie Breen (basketball). February -Chloe Magee (badminton). March -Nina Carberry (horse racing).