The Irish Times/Irish Sports Council Sportswoman Award for April: Savannah McCarthy (Soccer)
If at first you don’t succeed . . . a year ago Dave Connell’s under-19 team opened their qualifying campaign for the European Championships with five wins out of five, the last two over Italy and the Netherlands in the second qualification phase, leaving them needing just a draw against Sweden to go through. It wasn’t to be, a 2-0 defeat by the then reigning European champions ending their hopes.
A year on, they tried again, and in July they will take their place alongside Europe’s elite – hosts Norway, the Netherlands, England, Spain, Scotland, Sweden and Belgium – having qualified for the tournament for the very first time.
The team remained unbeaten through all six of their qualifying games, and in the second phase in the Netherlands last month didn't concede a single goal against Austria, the hosts and Turkey, Mayo Gaelic footballer Sarah Rowe getting the winner against the Turks having been set up by Clare Shine, who'd got the winner against Austria, the former Cork camogie player – all-rounders, this lot.
Ireland were beaten to top spot in their group by the Netherlands on goal difference, but qualified as the best runners-up, thereby eliminating Germany, the most successful nation at under-19 level.
Connell, the former League of Ireland stalwart, paid tribute to his team, captained by Chloe Mustaki, after their feat, not least to his goalkeeper Courtney Brosnan and her back four of Keeva Keenan, Grace Wright, Ciara O'Connell and Savannah McCarthy, whose defending throughout was the rock on which their success was built.
Singling out any one in such a team effort is, of course, a hapless task, but McCarthy, who only turned 17 in March, is impossible to ignore.
Named the FAI's 2013 under-17 international player of the year, the Listowel Celtic defender, coached by Dominic Scanlon at the club since she was seven, made her senior debut for Ireland last weekend in an unofficial international away to the Basque Country, a measure of how highly regarded she is by coach Sue Ronan.
McCarthy, a handy Gaelic footballer too with Emmets, has captained Ireland at under-15, 16 and, when Connell was also her coach, at under-17 level. “And she was just 15,” he said. “She’s an amazing young girl, with an amazing story. She has great leadership skills, a fantastic personality. She took on board her duties as captain and had the respect of all the players. She’s a toughie on the pitch, and a lady off the park – a good mix.”
Qualification for the under-19 finals caps what has been a memorable spell for McCarthy, her FAI player of the year award adding to one of her proudest moments, when, last year, her heroine Katie Taylor presented her with the Irish Traveller Pride Award for sporting achievements. As a member of the Travelling community, it was the most special of moments, not least for her proud parents, Theresa and Stephen, a useful footballer in his time too who is currently recovering in hospital after an accident.
Having been drawn in a group with previous winners England and Sweden, and runners-up two years ago Spain, the summer holds plenty of challenges for McCarthy and her team-mates.
“But we’re not going there for a holiday,” said Connell. “We drew with England this year, and beat Sweden, we haven’t lost in nine games, so I quietly fancy our chances. I think we can rise to the challenge. And with characters like Savannah, anything is possible.”