The Story of an Irish Underdog

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When you see players line up for the World Cup to sing the national anthems, they always look so serious. You know what I mean? Like they are always thinking about the game. And, well, yes, usually we are. At least we should be!!

But when I’ll be leading Ireland out for our first ever World Cup, and we’ll be facing Australia in front of 81,500 people in Sydney … I’m not gonna lie. I will think back to this journey. 

In all honesty, it’s been way too crazy to ever forget. 

The word proud is nice, but it doesn’t do it justice. If you want to know what this really means to us, how it feels, then you have to know the whole story. The qualifiers? That night in Glasgow? That’s only a fraction of it. 

To really get us, you have to know about the days when we had no money, no respect, no nothing. When we didn’t get paid. When we were training on pitches that looked like potato fields. When we had to borrow tracksuits, and then get changed in airport toilets to hand them back. 

I’m not joking. That used to be us. How we made it to the World Cup is the story of an Irish underdog. All along, each of us has also had a personal journey to get here. 

For me, that journey began with something very small … a simple signature. 

I can still remember going down to Inchicore to watch Ireland play. There must have been around 50 people there in total: Friends and family of the players, and us, a loud crew of 12-year-old girls from Templeogue United. After the game I was standing there with the free ticket I had received, and I was pleading, begging the Ireland players to sign it. I made the biggest Bambi eyes ever!!

“Will you sign it?? Will you sign it??”


You know who did? Emma Byrne, the Ireland goalkeeper. I’ll never forget it. At the time she probably had no idea what kind of force she had just unleashed. I ran home to my dad going, “EMMA BYRNE SIGNED MY TICKET!!” 

Dad was like, “Well, do you know who Emma Byrne plays for?”

I thought that she just played for Ireland, so I was like, “No?”

“She plays for Arsenal.”

Two months later Arsenal were playing the women’s FA Cup on TV. I think this was back in 2007. Like everyone else I would watch Match of the Day and Super Sunday, but I could not believe that a women’s game was on the telly. Arsenal won — of course — and my new best friend Emma Byrne was lifting the trophy right there in the corner of our dining room. I was staring at the screen thinking, One day, I would love to do that. 

But women’s football wasn’t on Twitter or Instagram or TikTok back then. It was barely on TV. As an Irish girl wanting to play in England, I was like, How the hell do I get there?

Courtesy of Katie McCabe

Somehow, I did it. I began playing for the Irish youth teams, I had a great U19 Euros, then I broke into the senior team, and in late 2015 Arsenal offered me a contract. Guess who picked me up at the airport in Luton? Emma Byrne. Suddenly I was sitting in the dressing room with absolute superstars like Emma, Alex Scott, Casey Stoney, Rachel Yankey and Fara Williams. I was like, Wait, how the hell DID I get here?

The first three months were amazing. Emma took me under her wing, and when you’re a kid from Ireland and Emma Byrne is actually your mate, you’re doing alright! The players had boot deals. The tracksuit was yours to keep. Even small stuff like having a table on the team bus … no disrespect to Irish buses, but the ones I had travelled on were the worst of the worst. I was looking at the little table going, “I can’t believe we’ve got that!!”

The Arsenal pros were probably looking at me thinking … You what? 

Then a bit more than a year later, in July 2017, things got even more insane. I was on a trip to Coney Island, Northern Ireland, with Ruesha, my partner at the time, and her family. At some point I checked my phone, and I saw that I had a missed call from Colin Bell, the Ireland coach. 

Before I tell the rest of the story, you have to know how much I love playing for Ireland. How much I like just being in Ireland. When I hand over my passport at Dublin Airport, and the officer goes, “Have a lovely day,” in that Irish accent, I’m like, Oh, I’m home. You know what I mean? I think it’s down to the people. Everybody in Ireland knows someone’s auntie or cousin. We love to have the craic. We’re a small island that has had to fight for everything. You talk s*** about Ireland? We can’t have that. It’s weird … even if you’re on the other side of the world, if you hear that accent you’re like, I would look after those people, because they’re Irish. 

I loved flying over with Emma to spend 10 days with the girls. You get there, pour a cup of Barry’s Tea and everyone just gets you. But now I was on holiday, we had no camp, and Colin was calling me. So I was worried. 

Colin is a pretty stern guy. I used to be quite cheeky, so I was like, What have I done now? I stepped outside the cottage we were staying in and managed to find, like, a tiny bit of reception in this one very specific spot. (Not easy on Coney Island!) Luckily, I hadn’t done anything wrong this time. Colin told me that Emma, our captain, was stepping away from the team, and now he had a question for me. 

It was weird. I was just a 21-year-old kid. Why was he telling me about Emma? 

I said, “Alright, what is it?”

He said, “Would you like to be the next captain of Ireland?”

I said, “Are you messing?”

Hahahahahaha. “Are you joking?” Me

Colin was like, “Well, would ya?”

I was like, “But why? How?”

Colin said, “I’ll explain it if you just say yes.”

Of course I said yes. But I couldn’t believe it. I got off the phone and just went, Did … did that just happen? You know that feeling, right? 

When I told Ruesha, she was like … WHAT? 

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It shocked everybody. We had players in the team with more than 50 caps. Why not them? I had played for every Ireland age group since I was 13, and I had never — never — been captain of any of them. Why now? 

There was another element to my surprise, which is a lot more personal. The truth is, I was low on confidence. I was in a pretty difficult place. 

Here we have to go back in time a bit. Back to the beginning at Arsenal. The first three months were amazing. But when the novelty wore off, I couldn’t handle the transition. I was this kid who had left home to play for this giant club that expected to win titles every year. Just one month earlier, I had been living at home with my parents, working five days a week at Nando’s. 

It’s true!! I was dishing up the juiciest Portuguese peri-peri chicken in Tallaght, Dublin. The waitress thing was never my thing. Four hours every weekday, I was the Grill Coordinator. When we got the orders in, it was my job to make sure that everything got grilled and sent back out in the right way. 



I was demanding. Intense. Probably gave people a few headaches along the way!!

So when I got to London, I didn’t know how to live like a footballer. At that time not even Arsenal Ladies had people who told you what to eat or how to sleep. Back in Ireland I was used to spending the odd evening … well, let’s call it socialising. Now my job was to be as fit as possible, and I wasn’t very good at it. Looking back, I completely understand why I was on the bench. If I had played, I’d probably have been injured, to be fair. 

I also missed living at home.  It’s hard to go it alone when you have grown up with 10 siblings. 

Oh please, save the jokes! Hahahah. I’ve heard every single one of them. “Did they not have a TV in the house?” Truth is, they just loved kids. I also have four nieces and four nephews, so there are McCabes everywhere in Dublin. Christmas is mental, absolute chaos. Thirteen people stuck in a house. Seriously, we need cameras in there. Keeping up with the McCabes. It would have been the most popular reality show in Ireland. 

We were always playing around, taking the piss. We’d play one-versus-one in the hallway, smashing up all kinds of expensive ornaments that my mum had bought. They’re all gone now. (Don’t know what she was expecting.) I’d play with my brother Shane and his mate at school, with a plastic goal down one end and two hoodies down the other. I’d have a mini-World Cup with my brother Gary and my dad at the local pitch, and all the boys would be saying, “I DO NOT want that girl on my team …”

… and then I would put a hattrick past them. :-)

Those were the best memories. No phones, no drama, just football with the lads. 

Courtesy of Katie McCabe

Growing up in a house like that shapes who you are. (Big shoutout to my mum and dad — I still don’t know how they did it.) I shared a room with three of my sisters, so if I needed someone to talk to, one of them would always be up. We could have a debrief, or just a chit-chat until we fell asleep. Then I would wake up and they would be there. Ahhhhhhhh, I loved it. I never had a minute on my own, and I never needed it. 

But at Arsenal? I was alone. I didn’t know anyone there like I knew my siblings. When I got benched, I was wondering what I was doing wrong. My mind was spinning. What do I have to change? Have people forgotten about me? There was no psychologist there at the time, and I wasn’t good at opening up to the players I knew. Six months after signing for Arsenal, I didn’t even like football anymore. 

One day I was sitting in my room on the phone with my older sister Vanessa with tears streaming down my face. I was like, “I can’t do this. This isn’t for me. I miss you guys, I miss everyone. I’m not playing anyway so why am I doing this???” 

Really, I just wanted to come home. 

Vanessa had actually predicted that this would happen, because she knows how much I love my family. She was like, “Katie … first of all, stop crying. Deep breath. You’re fine. Give it another six months. You’ve worked so hard to get here. Don’t pack it in just yet.” She calmed me down. And she was right. 

But I still didn’t get to play, and at some point I felt that I really needed to. So after my first year, I asked to go on loan to Glasgow City. It pained me, because deep down I doubted that I would ever come back to Arsenal and win trophies, like I had seen Emma Byrne do on TV. 

Anyway, this was the situation when Colin gave me the captaincy. I was on the bench at Arsenal. I was about to join Glasgow City on loan. The only place I really felt confident was with the Irish national team. I had lost a lot of faith in myself. 

I mean, just look at it as an outsider. I was taking over the captaincy from Emma Byrne, who was playing and lifting trophies for Arsenal. 

I couldn’t even get a game at Arsenal. 

What on earth were people going to think? 

This is where Colin was so special. He sat me down, and he explained to me all these qualities that he liked in me: intensity, work rate, passing, crossing, left foot. On a good day, I knew I had all that. But Colin also saw a side in me that I never knew I had. Behind all the jokes and the craic, beyond my 21 years, he saw a leader. A captain. A player who was going to lead Ireland for many years. 

Somehow, Colin knew me better than I knew myself. 

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In all honesty, I felt like an imposter. But the captaincy changed everything. I had no choice: I could not fail. Couldn’t let down the country that I loved so much. I had to change my habits at Glasgow City, and I had to play for Arsenal. Put simply, I had to be the best Katie I could be. 

When I got back to Arsenal in late 2017, there was a new manager called Joe Montemurro. He extended my deal by six months, which was basically a long trial. The next few weeks I never stopped running. I was the Fit Katie, the Physical Katie, the Confident Katie. I was also Irish Katie, turning up to a training when it was five degrees and pouring rain, wearing short sleeves and shorts all like “LET’S GET STUCK IN.” Joe loved that. 

In March, close to St. Paddy’s Day, he invited me into his office. I was there watching him sit there with his legs crossed, swirling a cup of espresso (Joe’s Australian-Italian). Uh-oh, what is this about then? But he said, “Katie, I want you to stay. I’m gonna be here for two more years, and I want you to be part of that journey.”

I was SO happy. I could have jumped across the table and hugged him, to be fair. Joe is literally the best guy. (See you Down Under, Joe!!) 

Since then I’ve just kept chugging forward. A year earlier we had won the FA Cup, and in 2019 we won the league, which we’re desperate to do again. The fans are amazing. (Guys, thank you so much for the love you show us.) Out on the pitch, some people probably think I’m off my nut!! 

That bodycheck on Lena Oberdorf? Nobody chops down my teammate and gets away with it. 

The occasional duels with Ella Toone when we’re playing United? It’s all just healthy rivalry. 

But with Ireland we were not really having success. We kept getting all this heat because we never made it to tournaments. Well, it’s hard to give something when you’re receiving nothing. It wasn’t just the tracksuits and the airport toilets. Many of the players had jobs, and since they weren’t getting a penny from the FAI — the Irish football association — they were actually losing money playing for Ireland, because they had to take 10 days off work every six weeks. We were facing teams who had seasoned full-time professionals. How were we ever supposed to qualify???

Something needed to change. And thank God it did. 

In April 2017, just before I got the captaincy, Emma led a player strike against the FAI. The demands were simply that we get proper facilities and match fees to cover the money we lost from taking time off work. We were supposed to meet up for a training camp to prepare for a game against Slovakia, and we refused. I think we spent about 12 hours in a conference room, waiting for a mediator to come to an agreement with the directors and board members, who sat next door. Luckily, they struck a deal way past midnight. All of a sudden we had to race back home to get some sleep for the camp the next day — we were exhausted!! 

When I got the captaincy a few months later, I had to deal with the knock-on effects. I remember calling up Emma going, “Hi, it’s Katie. I’m the captain now. What do I do????” I had NO clue how to lead a team.

Luckily, I had a lot of senior pros I could lean on. I still do, and I would not be sane still if I didn’t have so many experienced players to help me out. There is only one armband, but we are blessed to have a lot of captains out there.

I also got help for the next big step. In 2021 I was at a sponsor shoot with Séamus Coleman, the men’s captain, and I casually mentioned how much we were getting paid. He was like, “That’s not right. That’s not right.”

Things had improved after the strike, but we were still nowhere near parity. 

Séamus … what a legend. He put me in touch with Ciarán Medlar, the men’s rep, who sorted out the equal pay deal. There was not even any real resistance, because when Jonathan Hill had been appointed CEO of the FAI in 2020, he said he would work towards parity. I was also lucky to take over after Emma and the other senior players, who had put the foundations in place. I got some acknowledgement as the captain, but really, I was just surrounded by good people. 

That pay deal finally enabled us to kick on as a team. We were actually fresh from a HUGE disappointment. In 2020 we only had to beat Ukraine away to get to the Euros, and we had already beaten them at home.… 

So of course, we played one of the worst games in the history of football. 

Even now I hate just thinking about that game. Hardly any of us had even been that close to a major tournament before, so the anxiety was through the roof. We were terrified of losing. We talked about how terrified we were of losing. On that cold and dark night, our right back, Áine O’Gorman, passed the ball back to our goalkeeper, Courtney Brosnan, but unfortunately she had just taken a step to the right and the ball snuck past her. 0–1. Luckily we got a penalty right after, and I was going to take it. 

I was like, Great! This will get us back level. No problem, right? I was not focusing at all. 

I hit the crossbar. And I just went into a shock, like, Did that … NOT go in? What??

It was horrible. We threw the kitchen sink at them, with no luck. After the defeat we got together in a huddle, and I said, “Remember this feeling, girls. Let’s make sure we never feel this way again.”

That’s why we had that fire in our bellies in the World Cup qualifiers. When we met Scotland away in the playoffs, we knew exactly what to do. Courtney saved a penalty, and Áine, my God, what a game she had. The scapegoats were turning into heroes. When the final whistle blew, I felt like the weight of a whole nation had fallen off my shoulders. 

Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

We made it. Ireland at the World Cup. It was pure euphoria. 

That victory was not just down to the players who were out there. It belonged to everyone who had fought for the national team in the past. Emma Byrne was in the crowd that night, on comms. She never cries, but after that game I think she did. 

Whenever young players come into the team now, and receive pay cheques (!!), we tell them about how their predecessors put their necks on the line for this. Now it’s up to us to continue the journey. We want this World Cup to inspire the next generation of Irish girls. We want to give people moments and memories they will never forget. 

People in Ireland always talk about the men’s first World Cup, in Italy in 1990. We want this to be our Italia ’90. 

The Irish girls in Australia and New Zealand 2023. Ahhh, remember that summer? 

That’s what we’re fighting for. That’s what I will be thinking about before the game. Back home in Ireland, I know that lots of little girls will be watching us, just like I was watching Emma Byrne. And I’m just hoping, with all my heart, that some of them will be sitting there thinking, One day, I’m going to do that. 

If that happens, we have already won.