Century of caps yet another career highlight for unassuming Niamh Fahey

Galway woman deserves more recognition for her phenomenal sporting career

Niamh Fahey: has won 100 caps for the a Republic of Ireland during an outstanding sporting career which also includes league and cup medals in England and an All-Ireland medal with Galway. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

It was back in February 2008 that the Republic of Ireland played Arsenal in a friendly at Dalymount Park.

Two of the Irish players who appeared that night impressed Vic Akers, the legendary manager of the London club, sufficiently for him to offer them contracts. Niamh Fahey snapped up her offer, but Katie Taylor politely declined. She had other sporting plans.

Three years before that, in the dim and distant past of 2005, the then teenagers both won monthly gongs in the Irish Times Sportswoman of the Year awards, Taylor for collecting boxing gold at the European Championships, her first major international honour, Fahey for a blistering performance for Galway in the football championship against Mayo when, playing at full-forward, she scored 2-6.

On the Mayo side that day was one Cora Staunton; she, Fahey and Taylor are the earliest of our award winners to still be competing at the highest level of their sports, Staunton of course doing a bit of code-switching herself by joining Greater Western Sydney Giants five years ago.

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Taylor and Staunton are, it’s probably accurate to say, household names, Fahey much less so, even though her career achievements merit just the same acclaim.

The gist: She helped Galway to their first – and so far only – senior All-Ireland football title in 2004. She won the FAI Cup with Galway in 2007, scoring the winning goal in the final. She has a Gaelic football All Star to her name and been named FAI Senior Player of the Year on three occasions.

She’s won three English Super League titles, five FA Cups and three League Cups. She’s played for Arsenal, Chelsea, Bordeaux and now captains Liverpool, who are on the verge of winning promotion to the Super League. And, on Wednesday, she became just the fourth Irish woman to win 100 caps for her country.

That’s a heckuva CV.

There are probably a myriad reasons for why she hasn’t got the same recognition outside her sport as Taylor and Staunton, one of them the limited-enough television coverage of women’s football until recent times.

Niamh Fahey celebrates winning her 100th cap and Ireland’s victory over Poland in the Pinatar Cup at La Manga, Murcia, Spain. Photograph: Martin Seras Lima/Inpho

If the BBC and Sky were covering English football back when she was winning all around her with Arsenal and Chelsea, like they’re showcasing it now, her name recognition probably would have put Taylor and Staunton in the ha’penny place. You know what they say: “Can’t see, can’t be .” Happily, RTÉ’s coverage of the national team in the last while has changed matters significantly.

But “can’t see”, alas, was the state of play for Wednesday’s game against Poland when Fahey captained the side on her 100th appearance in their 2-1 win at the Pinatar Cup in Spain.

Worth following

It was an issue with the “local supplier”, the FAI said, that resulted in no livestream being available, and when you went to that Polish website that the world and its mother was linking to, the message that greeted you on clicking “play” on their livestream was: “Sorry. Due to licensing restrictions material is not available in the country from which you are connecting.”

Your forehead would have been sore from the head-butting of the screen.

(“You need a VPN,” came the reply to the melty-down text. “A wha?” “Never mind.”)

Hopefully the local supplier will be threatened with tarring and feathering to ensure coverage of the remainder of the tournament, because this side’s fortunes are really worth following this weather.

It was a pity, though, that techie issues deprived those who were in at the start of Fahey’s football career from witnessing her lead her country out on her proudest day – well, maybe her second-proudest after her debut against Portugal in 2007 as an 18-year-old.

The FAI put together a very lovely tribute video to Fahey earlier in the week which featured Pete Kelly, chairman of Salthill Devon, the Galway club she joined as a teenager.

“She still helps us out,” he said. “We had a draw last year and we got a signed Liverpool shirt two days after I sent her a message asking for it. That’s the sense of herself and where she’s from, and she has never lost sight of that. She’s an absolute role model to all of the young players, because we can point to her and say, ‘if you do half as well as Niamh did, you’ll be doing okay.’”

And talk to any of the younger members of the squad and they’ll tell you what an invaluable mentor she has been.

Ireland’s Niamh Fahey competes in the air with Mariam Kalandadze of Georgia in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup Qualifier Group A match at Tallaght Stadium, Dublin in November 2021. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Amber Barrett recalled watching Fahey play for Chelsea in the 2015 FA Cup final, when they beat Notts County, the first time the women's final was ever played at Wembley. The BBC covered the game live, and Barrett was gripped.

That day, Fahey was just one of three non-English players in the Chelsea side – when they played in last year’s final, eight of their starting line-up were non-English. She stood out, then.

“I remember it was one of those moments when you were like, ‘oh God, there’s Niamh, maybe I could do that some day.’ Until then, I don’t think it ever really crossed my mind that it was possible for a girl, especially an Irish one, to play at that kind of level and on that kind of stage. It was magic.

Surreal moments

"One of the most surreal moments for me was when I was first called up to the senior squad and getting the chance to meet the players that you grew up hearing about, like Niamh, Louise Quinn, Diane Caldwell. Girls who have been just phenomenal figures for women's football in Ireland.

“And when I was offered a contract by Köln in the Bundesliga, Niamh was brilliant, she gave me really good advice. She just told me it would be tough at the start, that I’d have bad days, that I just had to be patient with myself – not to get down if it wasn’t going right, not to be hard on myself, to keep at it.

“And there’s a danger that you’ll go in to it thinking it’ll be perfect, smooth, but she prepared me for what was, in the end, a tough start. Her advice was invaluable, and I’ll always appreciate her caring enough to give it to me and taking the time with me. She’s a good person.”

A shrewd one, too. With few exceptions, you don’t make your fortune from playing women’s football, so Fahey has kept up with her education throughout her career.

She completed her degree in pharmacology at the University of Hertfordshire after she moved to England, combined her football with working for a biopharmaceutical company for a time after graduating, and is now doing a Masters at Liverpool’s John Moores University, while also doing her Uefa B licence. At 34, there probably won’t be too many more seasons, but she will, at least, be prepared for life after playing.

It’s been terrific to see Fahey saluted as she has been this week. She’s always been one to hide her light under a bushel, a no-drama kind of character who would never assume she deserves the same level of recognition as Taylor or Staunton. But, that she does.

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times