‘Without spark, no fire’: Katie McCabe lit up 2023 for Ireland and Arsenal

A World Cup goal, Champions League team of the year and a Ballon d’Or nomination - it was a year to remember for the Dubliner

It was back in November 2017 that Katie McCabe was first added to our Sportswomen of the Year roll of honour, the then 22-year-old winning the award that month after captaining the Republic of Ireland to their most encouraging ever start to a qualifying campaign, culminating in a draw away to reigning European champions the Netherlands.

As it proved, that month turned out to be the most pivotal in her entire career, McCabe having just returned to Arsenal after a loan spell with Glasgow City. She’d seen little game time with the London club after joining them two years before, and was beginning to doubt whether she was cut out for playing professionally.

As she told Nathan Johns earlier this year, when she went back to London she had two weeks to save her Arsenal career. Her contract was about to expire, and if she didn’t impress newly arrived manager Joe Montemurro in training, she’d be on her way.

Safe to say, she impressed the Australian. Looking back on his time at Arsenal, Montemurro, now in charge of the Juventus women’s team, told Nathan that: “I’m actually honoured that I had the opportunity to work with her ... she’s a leader, your national team is so fortunate to have her.”


The trajectory of her career since then has been remarkable. After anticipating that she would be released by Arsenal, she is now in her eighth year with the club, and having signed a new contract with them in September, she won’t be going anywhere any time soon.

That is unless Chelsea come back with a higher bid than the one they submitted last January which, if accepted, would have made the Dubliner the fifth most expensive transfer in the history of the women’s game. That’s a measure of her standing in football now.

If she measures her own success by the number of trophies she wins with her teams – and you can be sure she does – then McCabe won’t be happy with her 2023. Ireland’s failure to get out of their group at the World Cup, for all her pride in leading her country in to their first major tournament and scoring that goal, will have been the biggest disappointment.

Winning trophies and topping groups as a team are much more important than individual accolades,” as she told Gavin Cummiskey.

But the personal accolades she collected through the year were an indication of the levels she has reached, perhaps none more than her inclusion in Uefa’s Champions League team of the season. The most striking aspect of that honour was that she was the only player not from finalists Barcelona and Wolfsburg to be included.

She also won Arsenal’s player of the year award for the second time in three seasons, some achievement at a club that is able to attract some of the best players in the world. She made her 200th appearance for them in November – out of their current squad, only Leah Williamson has made more.

And, of course she became the first Irish female player to be nominated for the Ballon d’Or, along the way scoring several of her trademark “bangers” – one of them, against Manchester City in April, voted WSL Goal of the Season.

Her relationship with Vera Pauw – from when she opted not to publicly call for the Dutch woman’s contract to be renewed to their fiery enough exchange of words during the World Cup game against Nigeria (and that subsequent zipped mouth emoji) – earned her no end of criticism. But as Pauw put it herself: “I love Katie. Without spark no fire. And without fire no performance. Katie gives us so much. No hard feelings to her at all.”

And Pauw knew better than anyone how much McCabe had contributed to Ireland’s progress during her reign, form she carried in to 2023 when, despite often having to tend to defensive duties, she scored six goals and produced six assists in 13 appearances.

The calibre of opposition in the Nations League was, of course, nowhere near what Ireland faced in the World Cup, and will come up against next year, but McCabe led them through a flawless campaign, six wins out of six earning them promotion to the top tier of the competition. And in the past, these were banana skins that often upended them. There was a clinical professionalism from them this time around, and McCabe’s leadership played no small part in that.

As Malachy Clerkin wrote recently, “nothing surprises you about Katie McCabe any more. Not the goals, not the assists, not the outrageous dragbacks and pirouettes that leave the best defenders in the best league in the world twisted into pretzels”.

“And maybe it’s that, above all else, that is the most remarkable thing. The very fact that there is an Irish footballer who is consistently performing at a world-class level in the most popular sport on the planet and we mostly just shrug our shoulders now because, sure that’s Katie McCabe. Like, what did you expect?”

Her name sits very comfortably on our list of Sportswomen of the Year, she is now an undeniable superstar in her sport. And remember, without spark no fire.

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Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times