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Katie McCabe interview: ‘It’s important to have characters, you don’t want a team of robots’

The Dublin native has scaled new heights with both Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland in 2023 and is already focused on the next chapter in a glittering career

Perth Rectangular stadium, July 25th.

On the eve of Ireland’s penultimate World Cup match against Canada, the Olympic champions’ travelling media are pursuing a narrative about Katie McCabe being overly “physical” and “aggressive”.

The Canucks’ coach Bev Priestman warms to the topic, until she is challenged. Suddenly, “physical” Ireland becomes “organised” Ireland.

But it begged another question. Can anyone survive at a club like Arsenal without an aggressive streak?


“No,” Priestman replies. “I think Katie McCabe is a top player. We are not scouting her because she is aggressive, we are scouting her because she puts good crosses in.”

Within 24 hours, Priestman rebrands Tallaght’s most famous daughter as “world class”.

And nothing else.

“Really?” smiles McCabe, four months later, sitting comfortably in the Gunners’ training complex in leafy London Colney. For all the lumps that she has taken in her career, the 28-year-old sticks resolutely to the ‘let-it-flow’ philosophy.

“I don’t think there is anything wrong with being physical. I think it is portrayed as a negative whenever coaches or opposition players speak about it. ‘Katie McCabe is physical’. I don’t understand how that is a bad thing. We are playing a contact sport.”

In the tournament curtain-raiser against Australia, with 75,784 inside Sydney’s Stadium Australia, McCabe went looking for contact. When not trying to curl a corner beyond McKenzie Arnold or freeing her feet to almost toe-poke a 96th minute equaliser, she was cutting down Hayley Raso.

Legitimately. Play on.

“It’s about being physical, aggressive, about showing your will to win. It is my way of showing I am ready and I am in a game. I want to make sure whoever I am playing against has to be at their best to beat me on the day. Being physical, requires that.”

Against the Matildas, she was surrounded by Arsenal colleagues like Caitlin Foord who occupies the left flank as McCabe tends to start at right-back. Coach Jonas Eidevall trusts the Dublin woman’s football brain, nurtured among the boys at Kilnamanagh and Crumlin United, encouraging her to pop up where least expected but most needed.

Reeling in the Years for 2023, naturally soundtracked by Sinéad O’Connor yelling Mandinka, will focus on her Olimpico at the World Cup before leading Irish the women out at the Aviva Stadium for the first time.

She also made the Ballon d’Or shortlist. Named in the Champions League XI, having almost dragged Arsenal past Wolfsburg and into a European decider against Barcelona, she even netted the Women’s Super League goal of the season.

That was against Manchester City in April. Off a clever short corner, McCabe crept into the box before cutting the ball through a thicket of sky-blue shirts.

We could go on, and on.

Not since Roy Keane’s aggressive magnificence in 2001 has an Irish footballer been so impactful in the Champions League, in English football and on the international stage.

The glaring difference between McCabe and Keane is she reached a World Cup as Ireland captain by keeping her opinion private when negative distractions were all around her.

It was a very good year. Twice she led Irish women into the history books. As skipper at Stadium Australia and Lansdowne Road in September, she broke new ground with every step.

She shone at the World Cup, but Ireland saw the best of her in recent months as Nations League promotion was secured by a belter in Budapest, a Tallaght hat-trick and several jaw-dropping assists to keep Kyra Carusa in the goals.

“Winning trophies and topping groups as a team are much more important than individual accolades,” she says.

“Now, obviously, the list you’ve mentioned, if I am picking up things like that and getting recognised for the commitment I give to club and country, and how I perform as a footballer, as an athlete week in week out, of course it is really nice and a remarkable thing.

“I’m just trying to be the best winner I can be in the competition I play in. With consistency over time people recognise the moments. Being at a World Cup helps as well. Being on the world stage, you can show people what type [of] player and person you are.”

Despite the scrutiny of public option, from Hampden Park to Brisbane, McCabe has developed a handy knack of avoiding controversy.

“It’s my job. I am a professional. I can’t let any noise or distractions or anything impact how I am going to perform or represent the team. This is it. People have this narrative that there was a craze, a noise [around the World Cup build up], but that was all external. Everything was calm inside the camp. We knew what we had to do, we knew what we were about.

“Even on the prematch walk around the Sydney Harbour, it was just so nice. We felt like we were in Dublin. It put smiles on our faces. We are about to walk out in front of 75,000 people, and we are on the other side of the world and half the stadium is Irish. Honestly, it just made us so happy. I wish that opening game had gone another way.”

Ireland had the Matildas on the rack, especially McCabe, who came closer than anyone to spoiling the hosts’ opening night. Any regrets?

“Nah, look, they [Australia] are an experienced tournament team, we should be proud of putting them under pressure for as long as we did. Gradually we got more positive in how we were playing throughout the tournament. It was a sucker punch that it ended after three games.”

Back to Perth and McCabe’s signature performance. After drawing a corner through sheets of hailstones into the top corner of Kailen Sheridan’s net, she turned to 19,000 drenched expats, arms spread-eagled like it was the most inevitable goal anyone will ever see.

“What gave us confidence going into that were the positives from the Australia game,” she remembers. “We knew we were able to compete. Going 1-0 up against Canada, scoring the goal, having that moment with all the Irish fans and all my team-mates was something special.

“Canada put their big guns on at half-time and came at us. But again, we were relentless. We went to the end of the game. Gave it our all. Obviously it wasn’t meant to be.”

She is done talking about the Nigeria game and a sideline dispute with Vera Pauw, leaving it to Diane Caldwell to reveal some hard truths post-World Cup.

Like moths to a flame, leaders surround Katie McCabe. Remember Chloe Mustaki’s poise on Sky Sports News after the euphoria of Hampden Park quickly turned into a media storm.

“It gave us an understanding that all eyes are on us now.”

Everyone wanted to offer a history lesson to female athletes who were consumed by happiness in a Glasgow changing room after qualifying for their first major tournament. At the very least, the Wolfe Tones should send the FAI a gratuity cheque.

“To be honest, I stayed away from all that nonsense. I know we upset a number of people with the celebrations post-World Cup qualification but for us it was just a reminder that we have got platforms now.

“We have people who look up to us and admire us. It is about using those platforms that we have worked hard to get in the right way. Yeah of course, you can look at it and see it wasn’t our finest moment but as a team, with Ireland, we work with a lot of charities. We will do charity work [during Ireland camp] by visiting hospitals pre-Christmas to make sure we are still relatable to young people.”

Who shaped McCabe into being this type of leader? Former Ireland manager Colin Bell always gets a mention for handing her the armband at 21, but who else?

“It’s a long list. Up until now, a lot of people have helped me with that role. The confidence Colin gave me to represent Ireland at such a young age as a captain, he saw a lot of potential in me that I didn’t see in myself. He told me I could be a world class player one day. I am still trying to achieve that now, consistently every year.

“That senior group in Ireland always helped me,” she continues. “Of course, Emma Byrne is one of them and she is a very good friend of mine to this day. Like, Louise Quinn, Niamh Fahey, Ruesha Littlejohn, Denise O’Sullivan, Diane Caldwell, Áine O’Gorman. They are the people I have had in my life consistently over the seven years as captain that I have been able to lean on and learn from.

“It is important to have characters like that, you don’t want a team of robots. And we have got massive characters in Ireland and I am lucky to be the one to lead them out every time we play.”

Euro 2025 should bring the McCabe era to full bloom. If they qualify. A more strategic, attack-minded approach is evident already.

“We’ll have a different head coach so your whole tactical prep changes. In terms of learning from the World Cup, just enjoy it. You have worked so hard all your life to achieve a dream. You are going out there representing Ireland with mates you have played with since you were 15. It was absolutely incredible.

“It’s about sharing your knowledge now. There are young players coming up, share how to deal with playing in front of big crowds, how you deal with the travel. We’ll see anyways, [it’s] two years away for the Euros.”

Standing in the Stadium Australia tunnel, seconds before the walk out, another ‘baller’ moulded on Tallaght concrete sprung to mind.

“As a kid, I saw Robbie Keane line up to walk out for Ireland at a World Cup [in 2002]. For me to be in that moment with my team and my country in front of a sold-out crowd on the other side of the world, with my parents and brother in the stand, it’s something I’ll never forget.”

All 10 McCabe siblings couldn’t make the trip Down Under.

“You’d need a big Emirates jet for them all.”


Belfast, December 5th.

Amhrán na bhFiann is played at Windsor Park for the first time. The juxtaposition of a hate-fuelld atmosphere from the men’s fixture 30 years ago to a night when young girls pierce the chill with screams of “Katie, Katie, Katie,” goes straight over McCabe’s head.

“Bit before my time,” she says.

But the contrast is kind of beautiful, no?

“We respect each other and that’s the way it will be.”

Northern Ireland are trounced 6-1, mainly because the Republic of Ireland captain decides to sign off the year in such stylish fashion that it makes sense for Stella McCartney to design her Arsenal garb.

Early in the second half she comes off the left, gliding past three defenders who seem scared to tackle her, before planting a rare, right-foot special in the top corner.

“We are trying to develop a different philosophy of playing. We want to be brave and not sit back. It’s going to be a really massive 2024 and we need to be prepared for the step-up in quality.”

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