Professionalism overseas key for now, but Ireland skipper confident in growth of women’s game here

KATIE MCCABE BRINGS it up herself: the need for — and realistic possibility of — a professional women’s football league on these shores in the future.

The Ireland captain, who stars for Arsenal in the Women’s Super League [WSL], is asked about star striker Rianna Jarrett’s move to fellow English top-tier side Brighton & Hove Albion, and she begins by delving into the differences between a professional set-up and amateur one.

There are currently 12 Irish internationals on the books in the WSL, and that professionalism is driving the Girls In Green towards qualification for a first-ever major tournament, she explains.

“I think it’s really important,” McCabe said when asked about Jarrett’s move from Wexford Youths to the Seagulls, in the wake of her two-goal dream debut last week.

“We’re not fortunate enough here yet to have a fully professional league, but for girls looking to push themselves to the next level, it’s important to get into that professional environment; to train every day, to go to the gym, to be eating right…

“To be fair, hats off to the girls that are still here, the likes of Áine [O’Gorman, who plays for Peamount in the Women’s National League] who can still maintain that and have a full-time job as well. That shows how strong they are and the mindframe they have.

“But for us with Rianna, it’s fantastic. She’s flying already. She’s had those few weeks of professional training under her belt and she’s doing it already. Hopefully we’ll see that continue, and you can see the squad to from strength to strength because of more players going abroad to play.

Kilnamanagh native McCabe was one of the stars of the Women’s National League [WNL] here before she made the move to the Gunners — “the club that set the standard for the women’s game,” she says — in London at 18.

She broke the scene at Raheny United, and continued to progress at Shelbourne when the northside clubs amalgamated, playing a central part in their 2014 league and cup double and Champions League campaign. 

Ahead of the 2020 season, the WNL has expanded to nine teams. Founded in 2011, the league is made up of amateur players and was sponsored by Só Hotels last year. With no sponsor branding on media promotion ahead of the 2020 league, it’s unclear whether there will continue to be one. 

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In the most recent extended Ireland squad of 26, six ply their trade in the Irish league.

On The‘s Ireland 2029: Shaping Our Future podcast last summer, we asked the question: can Ireland build a world-class women’s football league by then? 

McCabe poses for a portrait.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Professionalism and pay-for-play, of course, goes hand in hand with that, and 24-year-old McCabe believes that it’s realistic to have a professional WNL one day.

“Do you know what? I’d never say never. I think right now, national team-wise, we’ve shown we’ve quality players that if we did invest into our home league and really big it up, we can produce.

“Because we are producing, we’re just sending them away to England and to Germany. So if we were able to get those players back and keep them, like what England do with the WSL; they keep their great players and make the league what it is.

McCabe is currently completing her Uefa B licence coaching badges on an all-female course organised by the FAI, so that’s all in the back of her mind for when her playing days come to an end: “I feel like it’s what I need to do, stay in football. It’s great for us to have that opportunity to have something ticked off off the pitch.”

And she’s hoping that by the time she finishes up, the domestic game may have developed further here, with League of Ireland clubs bringing women’s teams under their umbrella an idea that appeals to her.

“I know I’m willing to help in any way towards that, to grow the game and to help clubs,” she continued. “It’s fantastic to see even Bohs now have a women’s team come in. I’d love to see Shamrock Rovers get one back eventually because they started with one.

“But to have an U17 team is fantastic. Hopefully Shamrock Rovers now invest again. They’re flying at the minute.

With the government restoring funding to the FAI in January, and €800k of that ring-fenced for the development of the WNL and the League of Ireland [LOI], McCabe is hopeful that it will be a 50/50 split.

Interim deputy chief executive Niall Quinn has spoken positively on it all so far, with one of the key conditions of the government’s rescue deal that the FAI develops a five-year strategy for the LOI and WNL.

Denise O’Sullivan, Rianna Jarrett and Katie McCabe.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I’ve played in the Women’s National League,” McCabe continued. “We’ve produced the players, I’ve been one of them, Louise [Quinn, Arsenal team-mate] has been one of them, you’ve seen all the girls going across.

“Hopefully one day.”

Of course, investment and marketing is key in all of this, but probably the biggest thing of all would be the Ireland Women’s National Team [WNT] finally getting over the line and qualifying for a first-ever major tournament.

Success brings momentum, and momentum brings change, and that is of optimum importance going forward for the younger generation. 

With a crunch Euro 2021 qualifier double-header against Greece [tomorrow, 7.15pm, Tallaght Stadium] and Montenegro in her sights, McCabe knows that better than anybody. That’s the spark women’s football on these shores needs. 

“Exactly,” she concludes with a smile. “That’s obviously been our goal since the start of the campaign; to qualify for a major tournament, something that’s not been done before.

“I’m hoping — and I’m more than confident with the players and staff we have, we can achieve that goal. It all starts again on Thursday night.”

That, it does.

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