Soccer

Brendan Crossan: If Katie McCabe and Marissa Callaghan can - we can too

Brendan Crossan

Brendan Crossan

Brendan is a sports reporter at The Irish News. He has worked at the media outlet since January 1999 and specialises in GAA, soccer and boxing. He has been the Republic of Ireland soccer correspondent since 2001 and has covered the 2002 and 2006 World Cup finals and the 2012 European Championships

The two Ireland teams line up before Tuesday night's Uefa Nations League game at Windsor Park
The two Ireland teams line up before Tuesday night's Uefa Nations League game at Windsor Park The two Ireland teams line up before Tuesday night's Uefa Nations League game at Windsor Park

AS a society, we inched forward on Tuesday night at Windsor Park without us even knowing it.

I was among a handful of parents/coaches who were meeting in one of the main shopping carparks on the Boucher Road trying to distribute match tickets for over 50 young female footballers, aged between eight and 10, and usher them in groups towards the West Stand of the stadium.

A car collision on the A12 Westlink meant that some parents were delayed in dropping off their children for the eagerly-anticipated Uefa Nations League match between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland.

It meant that quite a few of the kids and coaches weren’t in their seats for kick-off and therefore missed the historic moment of Amhrán na bhFiann being played at the south Belfast venue for the first time.

By all accounts and in subsequent media reports, the Irish national anthem was respectfully observed by the weighty Windsor Park crowd.

All this was happening 30 years on from that unforgettably toxic 'Night in November' that had a scarring effect on everyone.

History, alas, was blissfully lost on our young footballers who colonised a section of the West Stand, once the crumbling concrete edifice known in Linfield circles as the Spion Kop.

Bright-eyed and slightly awe-struck by the blinding floodlights, the general shininess of Windsor Park and velvet green playing surface, the kids filled themselves with sugar and shouted in equal measure for Katie McCabe and Marissa Callaghan – the two respective captains on the field, two left-footers and two adored role models in their midst.

Republic of Ireland’s Katie McCabe (right) was the star of the show on Tuesday night
Republic of Ireland’s Katie McCabe (right) was the star of the show on Tuesday night Republic of Ireland’s Katie McCabe (right) was the star of the show on Tuesday night

How could this be - one nine-year-old girl cheering for Marissa and another kid from the same group cheering for Katie?

Watching the action unfold, some parents of a certain vintage in the West Stand perhaps wondered about this apparent identity crisis among our screaming kids.

‘Go, Katie!’

‘Go Marissa!’

'Come on Northern Ireland!'

'Come on Republic of Ireland!'

Or maybe it was us all along who had the identity problem.

On Tuesday night, you could cheer for whatever Ireland team you wanted, and nobody cared.

The section housing the travelling Republic of Ireland supporters in one corner of the ground was bedecked in Irish tricolours.

Nobody was offended or sought to be offended.

On a family-friendly night in south Belfast, there was this recurring thought that maybe the women's game was onto something while also feeling the men's game still had some road to travel.

Who would have thought even 10 years ago that there would be hordes of young female footballers meeting at Tim Horton’s before heading into Windsor Park to watch an international women’s football match and not a blue siren in sight?

Who would have thought that these young girls would be making posters for match-day beseeching Katie McCabe to sign their jersey or to ask for hers?

You see, no matter what Ireland jersey the players were wearing on Tuesday night, a role model is a role model.

If they inspired some of these kids, that was the whole point of the exercise.

Katie McCabe certainly brought her ‘A’ game to Belfast too.

Even though the Republic of Ireland had already been promoted to the highest rung of the Nations League before Tuesday’s final group game, where they will now mix with the likes of Spain, Germany and France in the next campaign, McCabe never stopped running the entire match.

It was also fitting the Arsenal star scored an incredible goal in the Republic’s 6-1 rout of their northern counterparts, cutting in from the left flank and curling a beautiful shot into the top corner of the net with her weaker right foot.

Marissa Callaghan (right) congratulates Northern Ireland team-mate Kerry Beattie after scoring
Marissa Callaghan (right) congratulates Northern Ireland team-mate Kerry Beattie after scoring Marissa Callaghan (right) congratulates Northern Ireland team-mate Kerry Beattie after scoring

The kids screamed and howled for more magic moments from the 28-year-old who as a kid started playing football for Raheny United.

Even though the Republic were too strong for their hosts, Marissa Callaghan kept going, she kept pick-pocketing her opponents, showing touch and vision to give the north moments of respite and gaining small victories.

Callaghan, of course, pre-dates the times when kids are dropped off to their floodlit 4G pitches for an hour’s training.

She learned her trade on the streets of Divis flats, where one goal was the lamppost, and the other was painted onto the side of a gable wall.

Twins Jeanie and Roseanne McConville, Joanne Benson, Donna McCann and Marissa playing ’til dusk and going down to Maysfield Leisure Centre every week to play the boys in a five-a-side competition.

Dreaming big when no-one was listening. And yet, she made it from the Falls Road to the European Championships.

And on Tuesday night, there she was, playing on the velvet green surface under the blinding lights of Windsor, always finding time on the ball and picking clever passes – and just like Katie McCabe, inspiring the kids in the West Stand.

It would have been easier for her to disappear down the tunnel after losing 6-1.

But the kid with the unruly red locks from Divis made her way round to the West Stand long after the final whistle had sounded to sign autographs and give her shinpads to one of our girls.

Still sugar running through their veins, the kids melted away onto the Boucher Road afterwards, inspired by a transcendent night, and now seeing a physical pathway for their own hopes and dreams.

If Marissa and Katie can, we can too...

Marissa Callaghan hands over her shinpads to a fan in the crowd
Marissa Callaghan hands over her shinpads to a fan in the crowd Marissa Callaghan hands over her shinpads to a fan in the crowd