Monday, May 20, 2024

I just don’t think you understand

This week, Katie McCabe extended her Arsenal contract. Assuming McCabe sees the contract out, it will see her reach the ten-year mark as an Arsenal player, at least. The 28-year-old Ireland captain has been the picture of consistency over the last few seasons, with manager Jonas Eidevall describing her as ‘one of the top performers in world football over the past few years.’

Eidevall’s assessment is correct. But McCabe’s Arsenal story didn’t start seamlessly. She arrived during a period of scattergun recruitment in 2015, she came to North London around the same time as Sari van Veenendaal, Danielle van de Donk, Dominique Janssen, Josy Henning, Vicky Losada, Fara Williams, Asisat Oshoala, Natalia and Marta Corredera.

There was a huge intake of players as Arsenal realised they were beginning to slip behind big spending Manchester City and Chelsea, having already watched Liverpool win the league title in 2013 and 2014 that the Gunners previously considered their personal property. It was a slightly chaotic time to come to the club as a 20-year-old from Shelbourne in Ireland.

McCabe was considered the finest young talent in Ireland and caught the attention of scouts playing for her country. Through legendary Gunners goalkeeper and then Ireland captain Emma Byrne, Arsenal stole a march on the player. In an exclusive interview with Katie in 2020, she told Arseblog News, “I was playing for Shelbourne up in Mayo against a team called Castle Bar and I had this English number ringing me.

“I answered and it was Pedro (Losa, then Arsenal manager). We were on a pre-match walk and I had the Arsenal manager calling me, it’s safe to say I shat myself!” There are no flies on the Tallaght born left-back / winger, when she communicates and when she plays, what you see is what you get. Katie grew up with 10 siblings and was used to the idea of competing and giving no quarter.

“I was very cheeky and I had a bit about me- I could look after myself on and off the pitch,” she told me in that interview in 2020 and it’s very evident in her style on the pitch, which has won her a lot of admirers in the Arsenal and Ireland fan bases. While McCabe has a cheeky side and a competitive side, she is also dead serious when it comes to her football. She was made captain of her country at the age of 21 when Byrne, her idol, retired from international football.

Byrne was one of the main reasons McCabe became a footballer and despite the fact that she was a childhood Chelsea fan (as a left-winger, she idolised Damien Duff), Byrne’s presence at Arsenal forged an early connection between Katie and Arsenal. “I remember my dad putting on the 2010 Cup Final between Arsenal and Everton, the one women’s football game that was shown a year on TV,” she told me.

“I remember seeing Emma Byrne playing in that game and thinking I wanted to be like that, I wanted to be playing professionally and in cup finals, playing on TV and having my name on the back of my shirt.” But her ascendancy at Arsenal was not instant. She struggled for game time when she first joined and admits that she lost her joy for football.

Arsenal and McCabe came to the conclusion that she needed to go out on loan in early 2017. Eyebrows were raised when it was Glasgow City who she chose to join, despite interest from several WSL clubs. Glasgow City are the pre-eminent team in Scottish women’s football and, at that time, could probably have won the Scottish title with their reserves. But it was a smart choice for a player who wanted to reconnect to her love of the game. She became unhappy about not playing and told me in that interview in 2020 that she started to put on weight as her motivation dwindled.

McCabe admitted that she wanted to get back to scoring and assisting and winning games regularly. The loan spell at Glasgow was a confidence booster but when she returned to Arsenal in late 2017, her contract only had a few months to run and she fully expected to leave. That’s when Joe Montemurro arrived at the club and told her to keep an open mind and train well. Train well she did. So well that Montemurro offered her a new contract after three weeks.

Montemurro once told me he could not believe she was on the fringes of the squad. From there on, she has never looked back. In a multitude of positions, McCabe excels, her durability and work-rate have won the hearts of the Arsenal fan base. So has her feistiness on the pitch. However, sometimes it feels like a distraction and her irascibility is talked about so much that her quality is often overlooked.

For a start, her temper is exaggerated. While it is true that she’s no stranger to a bit of shithousing, she knows where the line is. I can’t think of a time where she has looked out of control or as though she would seriously hurt someone. The talk of her, ahem, ‘commitment’, in my view, often overshadows her quality.

Clearly, she has an eye for a spectacular goal. The phrase ‘Katie McCabe only scores bangers’ is one of the WSL’s best-known catchphrases. But I think what really stands out about McCabe is her sense of responsibility. The more challenging and difficult situations become, the more she steps up, the harder she goes. She is like a fighter that needs, nay, wants to be punched first so that she can respond.

This was a quality Jonas Eidevall acknowledged when I spoke to him at the end of last season, “This period here is the best we’ve seen Katie McCabe since I’ve been a coach here. She has been a tremendous player during these months.” In April, she limped out of the Emirates Stadium on crutches and clad in a protective boot after a heavy challenge in the Champions League win over Bayern Munich. Four days later, she did this.

That was the winning goal against Manchester City, whom Arsenal eventually finished above on goal difference. A clutch moment from a clutch player. “She told me straight away she was going to play Sunday,” Eidevall told us post-match. “Of course you don’t believe that. Then she went for the scans and they looked better than we thought. Me and her spoke a bit yesterday and she said ‘I’m here’.”

McCabe spoke to us after the game, pointing to the hole still in her boot from the challenge four days previously. “My foot has been in ice for the last four days trying to get the swelling down. It’s well padded up but it still works!” Tellingly, McCabe chose to celebrate that goal by running to the bench, “I wanted to celebrate with the girls on the bench because it’s been a real squad effort this whole season.

“I wanted to celebrate with everyone because it’s all about the team and the squad. We’ve stayed together.” In an adrenaline fuelled moment she was still minded to think about her teammates. That’s leadership. In that interview from 2020, a line really stood out to me. So much so that I used it for the article headline, “I wanted to be one of those Irish Arsenal legends.” Job just about done, I would say.

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