Different codes, same goal for netminders

With 100 international caps and seven All-Ireland medals between them, Emma Byrne and Elaine Harte are among the most decorated Irish sportswomen


Two goalkeepers, different footballing codes, 100 international caps and seven All-Ireland medals between them. Decent going. You’d be hard pushed to find too many more decorated Irish sportswomen. And but for their ‘code-switching’, they might well have been rivals all these years.

“So, if you’d stuck with soccer, Emma Byrne might never have been heard of?”

Elaine Harte dismissed the suggestion with a loud laugh: when it came to the business of goalkeeping, Byrne, she insisted, was always going to be heard of.

Speaking at Croke Park this week, ahead of tomorrow’s All-Ireland football final between Cork and Monaghan, Harte reflected on her days in the Irish under-18 soccer team, which also included Dublin Gaelic footballer (an All-Ireland winner in 2010) and basketball international Lindsay Peat.

By then, Byrne was establishing herself as the first choice goalkeeper in the senior set-up, but the Cork woman chose not to hang around to challenge her, instead opting to focus on her first love, Gaelic football. Byrne had taken the opposite route, the Leixlip native choosing to concentrate on soccer having played Gaelic football for Kildare.

She made her international debut when she was 17, back in 1996, against Belgium in a European Championship qualifier, having spent two years on the bench as understudy to Sue Hayden. Once she established herself, though, there was no budging her.

On Thursday, when she captained Ireland to a 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw away to Croatia, she brought to seven the number of Irish players, male and female, to join the century club, her Arsenal team-mate Ciara Grant the first women to achieve the feat - the list:
1 Robbie Keane (129)
2 Shay Given (125)
3 Kevin Kilbane (110)
4 Ciara Grant (105)
5 Steve Staunton (102)
6 Damien Duff (100)
6 Emma Byrne (100)

It’s been quite a journey for Byrne who, having first taken up football at Colaiste Chiaran in Leixlip, spent two years in Denmark with Fortuna Hjorring, returning home after struggling to adapt.

“I didn’t know anybody there, it was a bit difficult, I got homesick. The food, language, everything – and everyone was on roller blades,” she laughed when she recalled the experience.

A year later, though, she was off again, this time to London to join Arsenal. That was 1998, she’s been there ever since, winning every honour in the book, multiple times, including the ‘quadruple’ in 2007.

‘Normal job’
A lucrative career? Not quite. “People seem to think we get loads of money, that we’re really rich, which is pretty bad when they expect you to buy all the rounds,” she said. “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.”

Arsenal have, over the years, been one of the more progressive football clubs, valuing their women’s team more than most, but the disparity between the ‘ladies’ and the ‘lads’ was never more apparent than when a bunch of the former were given jobs in the club laundry where they were tasked with washing the lads’ kits.

Byrne had her spell there too, citing the scrubbing of Freddie Ljungberg’s underwear as the highlight of her day, before she was appointed goalkeeping coach with the Arsenal Ladies Academy.

Now 34, she’s not sure what the future holds, whether or not she will remain at Arsenal, but knows retirement isn’t too far away.

Harte feels much the same, having given retirement a thought or two in the last year, but she’s putting off any decision for now.

She made her senior debut for Cork in 2001 and played in the five-in-a-row winning team between 2005 and 2009. And then, after defeat in the 2010 quarter-final to Tyrone, returned to add to her medal haul in 2011 and last year.

She did, though, lose her place in the side after taking six weeks off during the summer for a trip to Australia. It was, then, an excruciating wait for tomorrow’s line-up to be named by manager Eamonn Ryan. Would he recall her, or stick with her young replacement?

Team named. Goalkeeper? Elaine Harte.

Monaghan will, you can be rather certain, do their level best to thwart her, but should Harte make it eight All-Ireland titles in nine years, in the week Byrne won her 100th cap, it will have been a heck of a week for the goalkeepers who, but for their code-switching, might well have been vying with each other for over a decade.