JustArsenal.com writer & founder of the newly-established Arsenal Women’s Dublin Supporters Group Christine Allen opens up on how she as a gay woman has found inspiration in sport and in life from Ireland captain Katie McCabe on her own journey via Tallaght’s 56A
“Muoye seat’s too hoye.”
There is something undoubtedly surreal about hearing the runner up to the women’s 2022 Ballon d’Or Féminin, England’s Beth Mead, mimic the Irish accent amidst a leisurely cycle during Arsenal’s pre-season training.
The Lioness’s surprisingly half-decent attempt at a Dublin brogue is aimed, of course, at our very own Katie McCabe.
A player that requires no introduction, Mc Cabe’s journey from Kilnamanagh to the world stage has been so heavily documented, both at home and abroad, one could be forgiven for thinking that very little remains to be said.
In the last few weeks, thousands of words have been penned about the 28-year-old’s historic Ballon d’Or nomination, while there’s a catalogue of praise for the litany of individual awards she has amassed throughout her eight year tenure with The Gunners, along with her impressive international career.
Having earned the 2022/23 Player of the Season award for Arsenal, McCabe celebrated 200 appearances for her club against Man City in what could be a crucial 2-1 victory at Meadow Park, having already pocketed the prize for Arsenal’s October Player of The Month.
There is, however, another type of legacy that the tenacious left-back come midfielder will leave behind, and this, in my view, blows all other accolades out of the water.
In order to provide context to my claim, let me take you back to the late 90s and early noughties.
McCabe’s senior by seven years, I too grew up in the suburb of Tallaght, directly opposite the Arsenal No 15’s home town, in a leafy green housing estate known as Kingswood Heights.
Hemmed between two rows of houses, on an uneven and mucky field, I spent all my free time playing football, pausing for breath only when the inviting melody of an ice cream van came into earshot.
In the early noughties, when the boys no longer deemed it socially acceptable to play with (and be beaten) by a girl, I practised my skills alone in the back garden. When the weather didn’t permit (which was often), I watched Bend It Like Beckham on repeat, a film directed by Gurinder Chadha about two girls battling sexism and the societal ‘norms’ of their respective cultures in an effort to follow their dreams of becoming professional footballers.
High speed broadband not yet a staple of every household, it was this film, along with McCabe’s alma mater Templeogue United, (whom I joined at age 11), where I learnt about the existence of women’s professional football.
There was one problem, however. If deemed talented enough to play professionally, you had to travel to America.
With a round trip to the Square shopping centre taking half a day on the unreliable 56A, you can imagine just how far off America seemed in my mind’s eye.
And so, like the Bend It Like Beckham lead character Jesminder Bhamra, under a collage of David Beckham posters, I dreamt about becoming the first woman to play for Fergies treble winning side in the Premier League. (United would not form a womens side for another sixteen years, in 2018.)
After exhausting myself in training and on the pitch, I spent my evenings relaxing at the Roadstone Group Sports club, glued to the Premier League matches on the big screen.
Back then, football was invariably seen as a ‘male’ sport. Given the prevailing narrative, female sports broadcasters, nor female footballers, were visible within the media.
The idea that I could one day sit in a pub, watching women proudly represent Man United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea (to name just a few) in an all Women’s Super League, televised live on Sky Sports, never even entered my head.
For a young girl growing up in Tallaght, professional women’s football didn’t exist.
Throughout my time at Templeogue, I also started to question my sexuality, oblivious to the fact that I was not the only one, feeling the inevitable confusion, shame and discomfort that such a period of adolescence brings.
Regrettably I left club football after a teammate innocently relayed my deepest darkest secret to the other girls.
Whilst my coaches were supportive and tried in vain to persuade me to return, the shame I carried weighed too heavy and I felt unable to look my teammates in the eye.
I didn’t see a future career in women’s football. I didn’t feel that I belonged. And so, I settled on playing heads and volleys with lads on the road, never to return.
I didn’t realise just what I was giving up.
This is where the existence of someone like Katie McCabe could have made all the difference, and in 2023, I have no doubt that this is where Katie McCabe IS making that difference.
At 13, I had no openly proud gay role model to look to, let alone a highly decorated female professional footballer who was not only accepted and loved by her team-mates, but respected and admired by the country as their captain.
Thanks in large part to the progression of our society as a whole, a young girl is much less likely to experience the intense shame that I felt. If ever in doubt, she need only look to our country’s captain, proudly holding the Pride flag aloft, to see that she is in good company.
Today, a young girl walking gingerly home from an intense training session can pause on the crest of the Kingswood Heights Hill, look across the Luas tracks and know that on a public green just out of sight, the 22nd best female player in the world honed her skills.
Today, like Kim Kardashian’s son, she too can wear McCabe’s name proudly on her back, chanting “We’ve got McCabe”, as she watches her idol lace her trademark ‘bangers’ into the top bins, live on Sky Sports.
Today, a female footballer knows her worth.
Today, she sees a path that is worth pursuing.
The first globally recognised Irish female soccer player to don the green jersey, down to earth, authentic, hardworking and warm, Katie McCabe has turned what was once a fantastical dream for so many young girls into something tangible – and reachable.
It is thanks to Katie and all those who have worked tirelessly before her, that a woman in her 30s from Tallaght will never again have to wonder what might have been.
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