Amid a throng of distraught players in red, Katie McCabe turned to the West Stand at the Emirates Stadium, offering a disconsolate but appreciative thumbs-up to the North London faithful. Arsenal had just fallen short in their Champions League semi-final second leg against Wolfsburg, an extra-time thriller that ended when the German side punished an error in the 119th minute.
After the game, fans had one name to serenade: “We’ve got McCabe ... I just don’t think you understand ...” McCabe had nearly won it in front of a record crowd of 60,063, as, moments before the winner, a chipped cross from her right boot rattled off the bar.
Ireland’s captain had assumed a similar role for the Gunners that night. Arsenal’s extended injury list featuring high-profile names such as Kim Little, Leah Williamson, Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema – the last three of whom fell victim to the dreaded ACL curse tearing its way through the sport – left McCabe as the literal leader alongside her regular role as the spiritual one.
McCabe’s Arsenal career has by no means culminated with that moment of adulation almost one month ago. It is fair to say, though, that as captain of the club with the biggest trophy cabinet in English football, playing in front of their largest ever home crowd – and the biggest that any woman Irish player has appeared before in recent times –, she has come a long way.
It’s well documented that McCabe’s Arsenal career got off to a slow start before a successful loan spell with Glasgow City in 2017 gave it the momentum it needed. The pressure she was under when she came back? That was more stark than perhaps we realised.
“I had two weeks to save it [her Arsenal career] initially,” explains McCabe. “I was going to sign for another WSL club potentially. I had probably the best two weeks of training of my life.
“I came back a different player, I was fit, I was ready, I was sharp, I was confident coming off the back of winning the league with Glasgow, scoring goals and playing week-in, week-out. It was a different sort of Katie that came back than when I left.”
Even then, McCabe was trying to restore confidence with just a six-month contract as security. Trust eventually re-earned, she was given breathing room with a two-year deal before playing the most minutes in the 2019 title-winning side.
Why that lack of confidence, what went wrong initially?
“You’re going over from being a big player in Ireland, [to being] a small fish in a big pond,” says McCabe. “It was difficult, having the opportunity to go out on loan and play. That was more down to being frustrated at the time. I’d just been made captain with Ireland and I couldn’t be captaining my national team and not playing week-in, week-out, so it was a no-brainer for me to go and play.”
During a low point in her club career, McCabe was given the most significant job possible for the national side. In the same month she left for Glasgow, August 2017, former Ireland manager Colin Bell offered her the captaincy aged just 21.
“I wanted Katie to take her talent more seriously,” said Bell of his decision. “I told her she could become a world class player if she became more serious about it, if she took responsibility, if she kept her feet firmly on the ground – and, obviously, she needed to be playing. So if she wanted to make it at Arsenal, she needed to be more dedicated and to work harder than everybody else.”
“Luckily, when she went back to Arsenal, they changed coach. But she was also in a different frame of mind then. She was ready to work harder, to be more professional and get the most out of that talent.”
That new Arsenal coach was Joe Montemurro. He may have forced McCabe to earn his trust, but he insists her ability nevertheless shone through from an early stage. “Probably one of the first things I did was bring her back, because I knew that there were qualities ... we didn’t have a player of that quality,” explains Montemurro.
“If I’m going to be honest with you, the first thing that got me was her smile and her enthusiasm. She was so happy to be back, so happy to be given a second chance.”
The fact that the conversation with the Australian coach is even happening is a testament to McCabe’s impact. Montemurro is now in charge of Juventus, who were Arsenal’s opponents in the group stages of this season’s Champions League. The nature of the competitive beast doesn’t normally lend itself to warm conversations about the opposition.
“It’s not about whether I’m at Juventus or Arsenal, it’s about people,” says Montemurro. “We’re in the game to improve people and the more we can have these chats the better.
“We had a lot of fun, a lot of memorable moments where we did win the league and a couple of other trophies, she’d always be the first one throwing the Gatorade over me. She never shied away from making sure that all the craziness started and she was at the forefront of it and that’s what we love her for.
“I’m actually honoured that I had the opportunity to work with her, and I thank her for allowing me to work with her.”
This extended period as Arsenal captain, leading the team to a finish just outside the top two following Saturday’s WSL finale, has been years in the making. That makes it a stark contrast to the Ireland job, with which Bell admits he took a risk.
“At the time, she probably wasn’t mature enough, but I hoped that it would work,” says Bell. “I knew that she had the potential to become our best player and then it was a question of whether she could combine that with becoming a really good leader and taking that responsibility.
“It was important that she understood the responsibility of being captain, meaning that she had to be a role model, she had to train well, she had to be on her game all the time.”
Now, as Arsenal’s leader, McCabe both understands and embraces that responsibility. “I’ve had a lot more time to prepare from an Arsenal point of view,” she acknowledges. “I’ve been here 7½ years now and I know what it takes to represent the club.
“Being a good person is so important to me, saying hello to people in the morning, those values I hold every day, coming in with a smile on my face. That’s something I’m passionate about and I try to bring the team together in any way I can. You wise up the older you get I suppose.”
As her manager for four years, Montemurro had a front-row seat for that wising-up process. “I’ve seen her develop so much from a character perspective when she did become captain of her national team and became a leader,” he says. “She really matured and started to be a better listener. She’s a leader, your national team is so fortunate to have her.
“There is a lot of empathy. She’s always got your back. I think that’s a really amazing characteristic, which is the natural evolution of her maturity. She became someone who understood the importance of what it is to be a leader. Just listening a little bit more before being reactive, she probably reacted off the cuff to a lot of things.
“She started to understand where people were coming from. From that she’d be able to make a better decision. That’s just growth in any leader, being a better listener, understanding where people are coming from.”
It’s hard to look at the two captaincy narratives and not think the learning is coming together at the perfect time. Just shy of three months after the magnitude of the Champions League occasion, McCabe will lead Ireland in front of 80,000-plus in their historic World Cup opener in Sydney.
“You’ve got to just enjoy it, take it in,” she says. “The national anthem will go and you’ll look at the Tricolour, proud of how far we’ve gotten. We don’t want to stand still, we want to push on and make sure it’s not just a once-off.
“Once we cross the white line we know our roles and responsibilities, what we have to do, and don’t let any of the outside noise take over us. We’ve worked so hard for so long, there are players in the Ireland team that have played 100 times and this could be the first time they go to a major tournament and represent Ireland at a World Cup.”
McCabe said it herself. At times with Arsenal, she has been a small fish in a big pond. Her Ireland career could not be more different. Does she enjoy the dimmer Arsenal spotlight? “I think it does help that she can go back into her comfort zone and play her football,” says Montemurro. “But I also think she thrives under pressure. She likes the pressure games, she likes that challenge.”
Yet with McCabe, the spotlight can never stay dim for long. There were rumours of Chelsea eyeing up a January transfer, but Arsenal’s injury list ensured the closing stages of this season have arguably been the closest the club has come to relying on McCabe as much as Ireland do.
“I don’t think I’ll be taking it in until I’ve finished my career,” says McCabe. “But I don’t want to stop now, I want to make sure we’re there again competing at the same level if not beyond in the Champions League final next season.
“I’m a very proud Irishwoman and I make that known to everyone here. I’m just very privileged, it’s a privilege to be in the position I’m in. I just want to utilise it and push and keep getting the best out of myself after every game.”
“To be walking out in front of 60,000 Gooners in a Uefa Champions League semi-final, to captain the team was a pretty surreal experience. One that I’ll always be proud of.”
One surreal experience in red, another, green-tinted one approaches on the horizon.