FOR Caitlin Hayes, the world starts and ends with faith and football. The Republic of Ireland and Celtic defender was never without a football when she was a kid, while her faith was more of a slow burner.
Sitting in the Lime Tree Bar in the Castleknock Hotel, the team’s base for the upcoming Uefa Nations League games with Hungary and Northern Ireland, the 28-year-old international rookie was happy to talk to a handful of reporters about her two passions in life.
As a kid, she recalls how attending mass with her father got in the way of her football.
“I went to the Catholic Church with my Dad and always played football at the back,” she smiles.
“I’d get shouted at by the priest because there was a constant noise from banging the ball against the wall. He’d say, ‘This is a place of peace and calm’ - so I stepped away from it.”
However, it was during her time at Mississippi College in America – where she studied Kinesiology – and later in Cyprus, having signed for Champions League club Barcelona FA, she began to explore her faith.
“I read a lot of books. I’ve read the bible. I’m not necessarily somebody who preaches it, but I do have a sense of believing that what’s for me won’t pass me by.
“I believe in something higher than myself, whether it’s God or whatever you believe, it’s nice to have a sense of something ultimately bigger. That’s what I believe in. If it happens, then it happens.
“I went away to America, which was a lonely time, and then Cyprus where nobody spoke my language.
“It was something I just accidentally found. You might call it 'accidentally', and we know there are no accidents when it comes to things like that. And it’s something I’m grateful that I ‘accidentally’ found.”
Her dream was always to play for Celtic one day. Three years ago, her dream came true – but not before navigating many “cow fields” trying to make her way with Everton’s development team in her late teens.
Her dad – Duane Hayes - chauffeured her football-mad daughter everywhere not knowing if there would ever be a tangible reward at the end of it.
Caitlin remembers playing games “in the middle of nowhere, leaving school early, eating your dinner in the car, getting changed in the car, going out and getting soaked and having to sit on a towel for two-and-a-half hours home so I didn’t get my dad’s car wet.”
After she’d been signed for Celtic, she began thinking about playing for Ireland.
Her international debut seemed to happen overnight.
Ireland were recruiting a nailed-on starter in Caithlin Hayes after she'd scooped last season's club Player of the Year, the Players' Player of the Year and the PFA Player of the year gongs.
Once her eligibility was confirmed through her Offaly-born grandfather - James Hayes - Caitlin was drafted into Eileen Gleeson’s first international game in charge – against Northern Ireland in September at the Aviva Stadium – and she’s been a regular fixture in the Irish defence throughout the Nations League campaign.
“Everyone thinks the best part was scoring the goal (versus Hungary) but to say your debut was at the Aviva Stadium, with your parents and best friends in the stadium, and making that eye contact like you inevitably do at a random point in the game or in the warm-up, I will never forget that moment, and seeing the look on my dad’s face. It’s something far beyond scoring a goal.
“My dad cried at the national anthem because there was almost a realisation that I made it."
She adds: “I always wanted to play for Celtic, I grew up in Celtic tops and when I got to Celtic, it was, ‘Right, I want the next step which is Ireland’.
“There aren’t two teams that go hand-in-hand better than Celtic and Ireland. It was that dream I was chasing for probably four years.
“People think I wanted to get into the squad just because of the World Cup but I wanted it for three years prior and this being the fourth. Thankfully, I got the call from Eileen and I’ve not looked back since.”
Kicking ball at the back of church and playing on cow fields, Caithlin Hayes has come a very long way…