On Sunday, Katie McCabe made her 100th Arsenal appearance. The 25-year old arrived in North London from Irish club Shelbourne in 2015 but it hasn’t always been plain sailing for Katie at Arsenal, in 2017 she went on loan to Glasgow City to “fall back in love with football” after struggling for minutes with the Gunners.
McCabe was considered the finest young talent in Ireland when Arsenal moved for her in the winter of 2015. “I first had traction from WSL clubs in early 2015 so it was about me staking my claim in the senior Ireland squad,” McCabe tells Arseblog News, fresh from a Friday morning gym session. “We were about to start our Euro 2017 qualification campaign so I knew if I could play in those games and hold my own against the best, I might be scouted by a big club. It was always my dream to be a professional footballer, I wasn’t great academically at school!”
Katie’s plan started to come to fruition as she established herself in the senior Irish squad. “I made my international debut against Finland, we lost but I got player of the match. In the next game we played Portugal and won 2-1 and I got two assists. Emma Byrne said to me, ‘keep your phone on!’ and I didn’t really know what she meant. She didn’t explain but she just told me to keep going the way I was going.”
Sure enough, during a pre-match walk with her Shelbourne teammates, McCabe’s phone rang. “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! He said he wanted to meet and chat and that he thought I could bring quality to the team. That was it really, I came over and signed.”
Katie had interest from other clubs but the pull of Arsenal was strong- not least because of their strong heritage of Irish legends like Emma Byrne, Ciara Grant and Yvonne Tracey. “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. 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, that kind of thing.”
1⃣0⃣0⃣ – Following her appearance in yesterday's game, 𝗞𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗲 𝗠𝗰𝗖𝗮𝗯𝗲 became the fifth Irish player to reach this milestone for Arsenal Women, after Emma Byrne, Ciara Grant, Niamh Fahey, and Yvonne Tracey 🇮🇪https://t.co/pYqJ1y5Uvu
— miedemastuff ⚽️ (@miedemastuff) December 14, 2020
From watching Byrne on television, McCabe soon came to count on the legendary Arsenal goalie as a mentor. “She was massive for me at Arsenal and for Ireland. I remember my first training camp with Ireland she didn’t speak to me for the whole week! That made me realise, ‘right, you really have to show your worth here to even get a conversation out of Emma.’ I was very cheeky and I had a bit about me- I could look after myself on and off the pitch and I think she liked that. We shared a pint or two as well, which stood in my favour!”
Byrne, who was instrumental in McCabe coming to the club, soon took her young compatriot under her wing. “When I came to Arsenal, she was the one that picked me up from the airport and dropped me off at my new house, she brought me on my first shop because I had no idea where to get shopping in St. Albans. Those little things really made a difference for me. I am one of 11 kids at home, I am from a big family, I need that family environment and she supplied that for me.”
Katie joined Arsenal during a very transitional time under Pedro Losa, with lots of player turnover and high quality international players coming into the squad following the 2015 World Cup in Canada. “Fara (Williams) and DvD signed at the same time as me. I thought I had played DvD before because she was so small, I didn’t realise she was a few years older than me! It turned out that it was Dominique Janssen I had played against before.”
It wasn’t just the new players that caught Katie’s eye during her first few training sessions either. “I was just training with legends. Kelly Smith was still there, I learned so much from Rachel Yankey who played my position. I was a big fish in a small pond in Ireland but it was the other way round at Arsenal. My feet were firmly on the ground, I didn’t come in thinking I would start ahead of anyone, I just wanted to learn and take the minutes I could get and do my best with them.”
However, Katie admits that her bit-part role began to impact on her confidence. “I had been used to playing all the games, scoring goals, winning player of the match and getting assists. I wanted to take that into the start of my career at Arsenal but it just didn’t go as planned. I sensed a couple of months in that I needed more game time and I spoke to Mitch, Emma and Fara, who I was also really close to and I needed to go out on loan.
“I waited and in that first year, I just made it my business to train really well and take the minutes when they came. But I struggled with it, the work-life balance when you’re not playing becomes difficult, especially on the nutrition side of things and I put on weight. I wasn’t myself really.” Katie says the loan move to Glasgow City in early 2017 came later than she would have liked.
“I didn’t end up going out on loan until a year and a half into my time at Arsenal. I just fell out of love with football a little bit, I was 20 and I needed to get out and play.” Katie joined Glasgow City until November 2017, helping them to another Scottish league title. She says that spell was the perfect tonic for her career.
“Mitch (Emma Mitchell) and Fara (Williams) were saying I should stay in the WSL because it’s more competitive and I knew that, but I needed to remove myself from that environment and just fall back in love with football again. I briefly went on trial with Glasgow City in 2015 so I already knew a lot of the girls and the setup there. We were playing really well and winning and I can’t thank Glasgow City enough, they welcomed me with open arms.”
In a tough month so far with some big results, a throwback and #CITYFILTERFREE to former player @Katie_McCabe11 scoring the only but brilliant goal for City in a big @SWPL 1 match v Hibs in 2017. ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/v9eap5BQiU
— Glasgow City FC 🧡🖤 (@GlasgowCityFC) August 22, 2019
However, McCabe admits that, while her confidence was restored, she thought her Arsenal career was over. “I didn’t think I would play for Arsenal again, maybe because of the relationship I had developed with Pedro but I thought it was done for me, yes.” Katie’s loan spell at Glasgow ended at the exact time that Joe Montemurro was appointed as the new Gunners boss following the mutually agreed departure of Pedro Losa.
“It was probably time for a change and the club decided that too. But I still remember thinking I probably wouldn’t go back. I had about four or five weeks left of my Arsenal contract and I thought that would be it.” That proved not to be the case when Joe Montemurro arrived at the club. The Australian coach favours versatile players and McCabe fit the bill perfectly.
“I met Joe for the first time and he asked me what the loan move was about, the Katie that came back was different to the one that left. I was in good condition and physically fit again, I had my confidence back. He just told me to be myself, do my thing and that we would chat again in a few weeks. After about two weeks he asked me to extend my deal and that was it. Joe really instilled that confidence and belief in me that you need from a manager. He gave me trust and honesty too and it’s been a good story ever since.”
The high point of that story was almost certainly McCabe’s late winner away at Birmingham that put Arsenal within six points of the WSL title. During a very tough encounter in Solihull, McCabe cut in from the right and powered a late goal into the bottom corner to give the Gunners a precious three points. It’s a day and a goal that McCabe recalls vividly.
“I just remember in the first half we had lots of chances, I remember Viv’s hair bob came out and she was running around with her hair down and we just couldn’t score. I remember the goal so clearly, Pauline (Peyraud-Magnin) in goal rolled it out and Birmingham nearly got it and I was like, “phew!” And then DvD started running and I started running, DvD played me in and I cut in and shot.”
🗓 Tuesday, March 26: Signs a new long-term contract
🗓 Sunday, March 31: Scores the winner against @BCFCWomen
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) April 1, 2019
“You could see the emotion in the celebration and what it meant, everyone was celebrating, everyone knew our foot was nearly across the line. It was definitely a high moment in my Arsenal career, it’s bringing a smile back to my face thinking about it and I see the goal on social media a lot and it always makes me smile again.”
Another high point of McCabe’s career was being named Ireland captain at the age of 21. “I remember getting the phone call from Colin (Bell, former Ireland manager) and I thought I was in trouble, but I couldn’t think of what I had done wrong so I didn’t know why he was calling me. He asked me to be captain and I was so shocked, I wasn’t expecting it at all.
“I was 21 and Emma Byrne had just retired and she was the captain and I was thinking ‘how do I fill those boots?’ But I have big characters and leaders around me like Niamh Fahey, Louise Quinn, Denise O’Sullivan, Ruesha Littlejohn who I’ve been able to lean on. Being captain of Ireland has definitely made me more of a leader at Arsenal, it’s made me think about when I have to be calm and when I need to drive the girls on.”
McCabe has made an excellent start to this season, registering a league high six assists already from left-back. She spent all of last season adjusting to the full-back position. During the summer, Arsenal signed Australia left-back Steph Catley and McCabe welcomes the competition from a renowned, world class player.
“Before Steph came to the club I was still figuring out left-back, I really wanted to tidy up on my defensive work,” McCabe reveals. “I looked back at the league winning season when I was playing as a winger and I was scoring goals and getting assists and over the summer I thought about how to bring that into the team from left-back- to be honest it just requires a lot more fitness to get up and down!
— Barclays FA Women's Super League (@BarclaysFAWSL) October 18, 2020
“I knew with Steph coming in that brings the level up in terms of competition for places and that’s what Joe wants to keep everyone at their highest level. I spoke to Steph in the gym last week and I didn’t realise that she was a winger too before she went to left-back and we spoke about her transition between positions.”
It’s been quite a journey for McCabe from cocksure Irish teenage sensation, to a player and a person who thought that her Arsenal career had hit the buffers. She has fought her way back to being one of the leaders of the squad and one of the manager’s most trusted lieutenants. Looking back, McCabe hasn’t lost touch with the 15-year old that watched Emma Byrne play for Arsenal in an FA Cup Final on TV.
“When I came over from Shelbourne I wanted to be one of those Irish Arsenal legends like Emma or Ciara (Grant). When I went on loan to Glasgow I didn’t think I would get another Arsenal appearance, let alone reach 100. I’m one of the lucky ones to reach 100 but now I really want to push on and get us back up the table.”