Katie McCabe glides around subjects, from Pride Month to life at Arsenal to equal pay, in the same nimble fashion she captains the Republic of Ireland.
“I am not painting you all with the same brush,” she smiled during a conversation about the impact of media commentary on female athletes, “but you try to pick the bones of some negativity at times.”
McCabe is about to become a more visible presence due to Sky Sports' three -year deal to broadcast 35 Women's Super League matches.
“I’ve a good relationship with the Irish media so they don’t come at me from too many angles,” she continued.
“But from next season, with Sky Sports coming in, you are going to be under a lot more scrutiny. There will be a lot more eyes on you and a lot more opinions. It is important to deal with it.”
The Dubliner embraces a natural conflict between journalists seeking big picture quotes from athletes who are conditioned to speak about their step by step process.
“You do your job and we have to do ours,” she suggested. “Respect goes both ways.”
In fact, respect can only exist in a reciprocal environment.
McCabe and fellow national skipper Seamus Coleman are believed to be central figures in negotiations with the Football Association of Ireland to bridge the gender gap for match fees.
Currently, Coleman’s men receive €2,500 per international while McCabe and teammates get €500.
Last week FAI chief executive Jonathan Hill spoke in detail about addressing the gender imbalance in Irish football, yet when he was asked for a personal opinion on paying the Irish women 20 per cent of the men’s fee for what is the same duty – winning a senior cap – he responded: “I think the approach that is used for men and women should be the same, yes. In other words, we should have the same approach to tournament bonus and tournament qualification. The quantum that that approach might refer to is dependent on obviously the decisions of both Uefa and Fifa as to how much they are going to pay for those bonuses but, yes, we should strive to have equality in that approach.”
Hill’s clever answer is open to interpretation. Fifa, for example, are not expected to dramatically align the prize money for the men’s World Cup, which was €340 million in 2018, to the women, which was €25.5 million in 2019, mainly because only one of these tournaments generates astronomical figures from broadcast and sponsorship revenue.
Perhaps the FAI could follow the lead of Hill’s former employers in the English FA?
“I don’t think there is a specific barrier to that,” the CEO responded. “I am having those conversations with both the representatives of the men’s and women’s team at the moment.”
In September 2020 the English FA and Brazilian Football Federation announced the same appearance fee and bonuses would be paid to female players as their multi-millionaire counterparts. Australia, New Zealand and Norway are already out the gate.
In 2017, the all-conquering US women's soccer team dragged their governing body into federal court to secure an equal pay settlement. The players are appealing a ruling by Judge R. Gary Klausner, of the United States District Court of California, that they had been paid more on a "cumulative and an average per-game basis" than the men.
"Women get paid less to do the same job," responded Megan Rapinoe, the two -time World Cup winner, in HBO's new documentary about this bitter legal battle.
The Irish Government are steering clear of the issue despite Minister of State for Sport Jack Chambers speaking to the FAI about equal pay on two separate occasions in the last nine months.
“Payments to international football players is solely a matter for the FAI,” the Department of Sport informed The Irish Times while noting that Chambers will continue to highlight the matter in future meetings.
For balance, we also asked Holly Cairns, the Social Democrats TD in opposition, as she wrote an extensive piece last year for the Journal.ie on the gender pay gap in Ireland.
Cairns believes the Government and the FAI are failing McCabe and her teammates.
“In October 2020, Minister of State Jack Chambers promised to address the disparity in pay between male and female players,” she said. “That pledge has been broken.
“Female players have suffered so many indignities throughout the years – no kit, lack of adequate training facilities, failure to promote the game and substandard pay – yet they continue to play and train to the best of their abilities because they love the game.
“It is an indictment of the Irish Government, and the FAI, that they are not treated with the respect – and equality – they deserve.”
McCabe, speaking from FAI HQ in June, did not shirk a query about the existing inequality.
“The equal pay thing is what everybody talks about. It is great to see other nations do that.
“[There are] conversations with Seamus, he is a great lad, and he supports the team obviously from afar. The girls know the lads support them tremendously. The dialogue between us is great.
“Look, we just need equal opportunity more than anything. That’s what those talks were about a few years ago in terms of facilities, hotels and access to nutritionists and what not.
“We are happy where it is at but obviously you can never stand still. We will be looking to improve going forward.
“On the equal pay matter, I can’t really say too much on it. For us it is about concentrating on the pitch for now and seeing what happens in the future.”
McCabe's Ireland head into the 2023 World Cup qualifiers in September at a low ebb having lost their last seven matches. Dutch native Vera Pauw, the Republic's manager since 2019, constantly mentions the need for home-based players to compete with men on a weekly basis.
“The crucial, crucial, crucial thing is we start training with boys,” said Pauw in three separate interviews this summer. “It is the only way.”
Four years ago McCabe stood silently behind Emma Byrne and other veterans as the Republic of Ireland women's squad stood up for themselves in Liberty Hall. That press conference was hardly a revolutionary moment. They simply wanted to end repeated humiliations like having to strip off in airport toilets.
“I had just broken into the squad and I trusted the leaders at that time about what way we needed to take the women’s national team.”
Now the Arsenal winger is the leader.
“It was a major step for us but even now, just the dialogue between ourselves and people within the FAI, if we need anything, I can get on to whoever to get support. That level of communication and the support wasn’t there in the past.
“We have come a long way. The relationship between ourselves and the FAI is absolutely fine. We are in a good place now.
“We are just ready to kick on. We have got the facilities. It is up to us now on the pitch to get the women’s national team to a major tournament. We want to create a no-excuses culture.”
The 25-year-old has seen enormous change since her childhood.
"All I had was boys teams growing up. It wasn't until I got to the under 15 Ireland level that I was introduced to a senior [women's] team, with Raheny United, where I had a really successful time.
“But I came home recently and was at Kilnamanagh football club on a Sunday morning. I brought my little niece down to the girls academy training. There was 140 girls there. That is progress for me.
“Young girls playing football, that wasn’t the case for me, so we need to keep supporting the clubs at grassroots level.”
At least Katie McCabe can do something about Irish girls receiving the same standard of coaching.
“I am currently doing my Uefa B coach [badge] with the FAI. They are giving me the opportunity to hopefully go and coach one day after my career is finished.”
She’s not alone.
“It is a women’s-only course so people are a bit more comfortable to speak up and voice their opinions on a certain formation or whatever it may be. Hopefully I will push on with the A and the Pro Licence. All post-career stuff, but it is fantastic that the FAI can support the girls to go through that.”
Perhaps, with Catherine Guy and Liz Joyce on the redesigned FAI board as independent directors, the association will fast-track negotiations around equal pay. Because, as the chief executive said, a specific barrier no longer exists. If it is only about the money, they might have to rob Seamus to pay Katie.