David Hennessy talks to Emma Byrne, goalkeeper with Arsenal and Ireland about the Irish women’s forthcoming qualifying campaign and whether she would have stopped Stephanie Roche’s famous goal
“I don’t know,” Arsenal goalkeeper Emma Byrne laughs when asked if she would have stopped the famous goal that made Stephanie Roche an international star. Nominated for the Puskas Award alongside Robin Van Persie and James Rodriguez, Stephanie’s outstanding strike brought female football into the headlines and earned her a high profile move to Houston Dash.
“Probably not but we always joke and I’m like, ‘you know Steph, you wouldn’t have scored that against me’ and just laugh.
“When I saw the goal, I said, ‘wow’. It was an unbelievable goal. Obviously, she’s grown in confidence because she scored another fantastic goal in an international tournament so it’s just great to see Steph grow as a player. Hopefully being in America will also help her improve because it’s so physical out there and that’s the one aspect of Steph’s game that needs to get better. She’s really brave moving out there and I really commend her for that.”
Captain Emma and her international team mates found out recently that they will be facing Spain, Finland, Montenegro and Portugal as they bid to qualify for the European Championships in 2017.
It is a draw that Emma and her team mates are very happy with: “We played Spain a few weeks ago. We lost 0-1 but we performed really badly and we had a goal disallowed. We weren’t happy with our performance but coming off the pitch we were like: ‘Do you know what? We wouldn’t mind getting them as our first seed in the group instead of a Germany of France like we normally get’. So we were really happy that we avoided the big guns.
“We would like to think we would be odds on favourites to beat Montenegro.
“Portugal we have played a good few times. They are good but again a team we feel we can beat and probably should be beating.
“Finland are ranked ahead of us. Their physicality would be problematic. Again it’s a team we feel we can beat.
“We feel we can come out top in the group really even though we’re going in as unseeded. We feel with the right preparation, there’s no reason and we’ve no excuses not to go through. I think we should be putting pressure on ourselves to qualify this time.”
Republic of Ireland’s females have never qualified for a major tournament. 35-year-old Emma has had a glittering career with Arsenal winning the Women’s Champions League, two FA Womens Super Leagues, nine Women’s Premier League National Divisions, nine FA Women’s Cups, three Women’s Super League Cups and five FA Women’s Premier League Cups. Playing for her country since 1996, Emma has represented Ireland 113 times.
Having enjoyed so much success at club level, is taking Ireland to an international tournament the one thing missing from Emma’s career? “Yeah, obviously I would never change playing for Ireland. I love it and I’m very passionate about where I’m from but I think it’s a shame if we can’t play at the top level, for the other girls as well.
“At least I’ve had a taste of playing against the top teams. I’ve played Champions League so I have a taste of it. It would be great for the other girls as well, not just for me because I’m coming towards to the end of my career.
“I think the country itself needs an uplift in women’s football. We need to start igniting another flame and the only way we’re going to do that is if we’re successful like the women’s rugby team.”
Emma believes the Irish national team has improved from players like Louise Quinn and Diane Caldwell going to play in the more competitive Scandinavian leagues: “I definitely think we’ve got a lot better than three or four years ago. I definitely think we’re going in the right direction. I think that’s got to do with a lot of the players moving abroad and playing and playing at a higher level, they’re definitely improving as individuals and in turn that will help us as a team.”
Going back to Stephanie Roche’s famous goal. Is this something would like to see built on rather than dined out on? “Exactly, it’s always fantastic to see women in sport, in particular football, in the papers for the right reasons. It’s probably not as common as we’d like but Steph got great publicity all around the world, it’s fantastic and it’s a great thing for our whole team because we’re getting a bit of recognition which is something that is huge for the women’s game in general.”
The Irish World spoke to Irish international defender Niamh Fahey about her move from Arsenal to Chelsea. Niamh’s departure leaves Emma as the only Irish squad member at Arsenal whereas just a few years ago there was an Irish contingent that also included Yvonne Tracey and Ciara Grant: “This is the first season just being me. It’s really really strange but it’s the same with the boys. The Irish contingency is dwindling with the men as well, it’s kind of sad to see.
“It was a nice place to be, especially when you’ve got people from your own country but that’s the way the game’s going. They’re picking from abroad because there’s more money involved which helps to raise the standard of the game but it’s also a different environment to be in.”
Emma was presented with an Irish World Award at our ceremony at the Galtymore in 2008: “It was a great night and it felt like I was back home to be quite honest. It was just great because there’s such a big Irish community around that area and I’m actually ten minutes away from there, I live in Radlett. I never realised it was there. It was great to see that. It was really good because I got to meet Dara O’Briain. My husband (former footballer Marcus Bignot) who is from Birmingham loved it. He just thinks we’re all a bit mad.”