Republic of Ireland international Niamh Fahey joins Chelsea

Move comes after four English League titles and four cups in eight seasons at Arsenal

Niamh Fahey wants a crack at playing the game full time and Chelsea are more than happy to help make that dream come true. Photograph: AP

Niamh Fahey wants a crack at playing the game full time and Chelsea are more than happy to help make that dream come true. Photograph: AP

 

Close your eyes and imagine for a moment the type of south London suburb where a club like Chelsea might choose to have their training ground and you could very well come close to picturing Cobham, a leafy Surrey village where one of the of the five shops facing the commuter line train station specialises in swimming pool accessories.

At the club’s sprawling complex where pristine pitches seem to stretch as far as the eye can see, Niamh Fahey sits back and laughs at the idea of being one of its newest residents: “It’s very nice,” she says “but I’m the local pauper”.

Fahey, the 27 year-old Republic of Ireland international who won four English League titles and four cups during eight seasons at Arsenal, has moved to the place in order to fulfil a surprisingly modest ambition: With just a few years left, she reckons, of her football career, she wants a crack at playing the game full time.

Chelsea are more than happy to help make that dream come true.

The club set out to win the Women’s Super League last season but missed out on the last day of the season. Over the winter months they licked their wounds and bought the best. Fahey is not the only new recruit to have made her name in north London, where manager Emma Hayes also used to coach, and to judge by the team’s two results to date, wins over Watford in the Cup and Notts County in the WSL, things are coming together nicely. Tonight it is Bristol Academy away.

Just football

It is days like today that made Fahey’s mind up for her when Hayes came calling with the offer of a full-time contract late last year. During her time at Arsenal, she studied science before working in R&D at a biopharmaceutical company where extra days off were offset by going in at weekends. Now there is just football. It’s been a while but this, at last, is what life as a professional footballer is supposed to be like.

Inspired back at home by the success of her All-Ireland winning brothers Richie and especially Gary, the eldest of her seven siblings, Fahey had helped Galway to a women’s title at just 16. She played soccer too and though she was considered raw (“as a rasher,” said Noel King when they first met) both he and current senior manager Sue Ronan saw potential that helped her become a full international three years later.

Second Captains

And when Arsenal played a friendly against the Irish team, the club’s manager, Vic Akers, offered her and Katie Taylor the chance to come to London.

Taylor had Olympic gold medals on her mind and declined but, “I jumped at the opportunity,” Fahey says. “I was a bit nervous but it was such a big club. I would have watched them on TV and obviously Emma (Byrne), Yvonne (Tracy) and Ciara Grant were there. They would have been my idols. I was in awe of them so I wasn’t going to turn them down.”

After arranging to finish her science degree at the University of Hertfordshire she was on her way. “I finished one year over two then did a masters and it all worked out quite well.”

What it was not, was professional.

“When I came over first it was a pay-per-play deal so we’d get paid on a match fee basis. You had to make the first team squad. I think it was £80 per game and you might only have two games in the month. They (the established Irish players) would have been on the same basis. There were different levels but they wouldn’t have been a million miles away.”

Akers’ standards were high. Arsenal were streets ahead of the opposition and Fahey is quick to acknowledge that when she did her cruciate ligament the club ensured that she got the best treatment possible. Within the club, though, the women were still sometimes made to feel like second-class citizens: “Nobody wanted to be driving around in a Porsche, ” she says. “But very simple things: training structure, being able to use more of the facilities.”

New league rules and shifting social perceptions brought competition from other clubs and Chelsea are among a number now intent on making the running in the women’s game. The set-up itself is certainly professional but if male players are riding high on market forces then the women are still constrained by them.

Fahey puts the average salary of squad members as being between roughly €18,000 and €30,000, gross, per annum. The leading English players often get as much again in sponsorship or grants but for Fahey, who says she took “a massive pay cut” when she quit her R&D job to go full time, there is just her club salary.

‘Bills paid’

“It’s liveable,” she says. “Plus you get accommodation, some bills paid for on top. It’s liveable but by no means are you saving for a house or anything like that. It’s tight, yeah.”

Fahey sounds entirely content with the choices she has made, though. She speaks with obvious enthusiasm about the day-to-day training, getting to play in her preferred position of centre-half after years at left back, of the improved standards and increased competition that this season will bring and of the opportunity the move will give her to play Champions League football again.

And she is already looking beyond it all. “I want to be successful,” she says, “and the rubber stamp of having a really good career is moving clubs and being successful elsewhere so helping Chelsea to win some silverware is a good priority to have, maybe that’s shared with Ireland qualifying for the European Championship.

“But I think you have to think about what you’re going to do afterwards as well. I hate put a time on it but you have to make plans for after 30 I think. There are sporadic instances, but females tend to come much earlier into the first team and they tend to finish earlier too.”

So, she says, she’ll do her coaching badges and possibly return to her career in science; a different world but one where her skills and experience are also quite marketable. And for as long as it lasts, she’ll enjoy life in London.

“I always said I’d go home so I think I’ll have to go home,” she says in a way that suggests she’d take Killanin over Cobham any day of the week. “They’ll be expecting me at some stage; I only ever said that I was going for a year or so.”

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