Fahey’s Gunning for Euro glory
It’s not that long ago that Arsenal were the team to follow in London if you were Irish. It was the 70s and 80s and the era of Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, David O’Leary, Sammy Nelson, Pat Jennings, Pat Rice and latterly Niall Quinn. Even later would come the likes of Steve Morrow and Eddie McGoldrick to keep the Irish tradition at the club going.
The French invasion under Arsene Wenger put an end to all of that, but only as far as the club’s men’s team is concerned, as the Arsenal Ladies team are very much keeping that Irish tradition at Arsenal alive.
Goalkeeper Emma Byrne joined in 2000, the same year as defender Yvonne Tracy, while Ciara Grant arrived in 1998. They’ve been joined more recently by Niamh Fahey, who has been at the club since impressing while playing for the Republic of Ireland against Arsenal in a friendly in Dublin in February 2008.
“I don’t know if we’re known as the Irish side of the women’s club yet. We’re trying to mix it up a little – there’s too much English in there for our liking! We’re just trying to make it a little bit more diverse – we’re taking over!” said the 24-year-old from Galway.
“There’s always been an Irish girl there and I suppose that connection is strong, and it’s good for Ireland because we’re at one of the top clubs in Europe. It can only be good for our international team.”
The quartet have formed the backbone of a hugely successful era at Arsenal Ladies, which only a few short weeks saw them clinch their ninth consecutive Women’s Super League title – a feat they achieved without being beaten.
For good measure they made it a double last week by beating Birmingham 1-0 in the Continental Cup final, and now have their sights set on the Women’s Champions League, having already disposed of Barcelona to reach the last 16.
“We won the treble last year so may be a little bit disappointed not to get three [Chelsea knocked them out of the FA Cup], but two is definitely not a bad haul for the year,” added Fahey.
The Champions League is a competition the club have won only once before, in 2006/07, but they’ve been handed a tough quarter-final draw against leading German outfit FFC Turbine Potsdam.
Having been European champions in 2005 and 2010, and runners up in 2006 and again last year, the German side have serious Champions League pedigree, and Fahey is acutely aware that Arsenal have a huge task ahead of them – 1st leg November 1 at Boreham Wood FC with the 2nd leg fixed for November 7 in Potsdam.
“We’ve got a tough draw against Potsdam, who we’ve never been able to beat in this competition. The odds are against us and it will be a good challenge, but based on this year we should have a good shout,” said Fahey.
“They’re always there or thereabouts. The German league is very strong. They’re up there with the top teams in Europe.
“The Champions League is the competition which has eluded us. The club has only won it once in its history, and they said themselves that year that they had a lot of luck on the way to winning it. It’s a very hard competition to win.”
Arsenal were knocked out at the semi-final stage last season, losing to Frankfurt 4-1 on aggregate. Frankfurt went on to dethrone the defending champions Potsdam in the final.
Fahey jokes that the total sum of supporters at Boreham Wood for the home leg could be “one man and his dog” due to the fact that the poor floodlighting at the ground means kick-off will have to be during the day. But Arsenal’s success on the pitch, added to the feel-good factor from London 2012, which gave women’s football the chance to take centre stage, should ensure they’ll be a good few more there than that.
“I went to the France v Japan semi-final at Wembley and there was 60,000 there. I watched the Team GB games and they got a full house for their Brazil game and they said the atmosphere was electric. Wembley was jammed packed and that’s unprecedented for women’s football in the UK,” said Fahey.
“It just shows how a bit of media coverage can help the sport. Obviously the Olympic vibe was there and the feel-good factor, but I think it helped change peoples’ perception of women’s football.”
Already this season, Arsenal’s Ladies attracted over 5,000 to the Emirates Stadium for their Women’s Super League 3-1 win over Chelsea – an attendance record for the league. The chance to play at the Emirates is a rare one, however, the Champions League final could yet offer another welcome opportunity, with the game set for May 23 in London and the venue still to be confirmed.
“That would be pretty good,” says Fahey, who is unique at Arsenal Ladies in having a full time job outside of the club. While the club’s England international players are centrally contracted and others are employed by Arsenal in a variety of roles, such as coaches, Fahey has been working as Research Assistant at Bio Products Laboratory since July.
She combines her full time career with twice or thrice weekly training sessions at the club’s state of the art London Colney facility, while her remaining evenings are spent in the gym, and then there’s the travel. All of which calls for a sympathetic employer and a liberal use of her holiday entitlement.
“It’s quite difficult, but I only started the job in July so I don’t think it’s really hit home how difficult it’s going to be. So far it’s ok, they’re quite flexible. I just manage my holidays around my football and they usually give me a bit of leeway here and there,” she said.
“So far it works, but we’ll see how long that lasts. I’m dipping into next year’s holiday entitlement, which is a dangerous thing.”
A promising Gaelic footballer in her own right, Fahey is the sister of Galway’s 2001 All Ireland football winners’ captain Gary and Richie. Indeed, the youngest of eight children, four of her six brothers played for Galway at senior or U21 level.
Niamh herself won an All Ireland with Galway in 2004 at the age of just 16, but she would be forced to turn her back on the GAA after her soccer career began to kick off with Ireland in 2007.
Her big break came playing for Ireland against Arsenal in a friendly in Dublin in February 2008, alongside Katie Taylor. The call from Arsenal came a few months later.
“Vic Akers was manager at the time and he was interested in trying to get Katie Taylor and I over. Katie was boxing so she was never going to come, but I jumped at the chance,” she said.
“I was still in college at the time, but it was a dream to go to Arsenal and I was going to turn that down.”
It’s a decision which has paid off handsomely, and not just at club level, with Fahey named FAI Women’s Senior International Player of the Year in 2008, 2009 and 2011. For the record, though, as well as all the league and cup medals, Fahey was named Arsenal Ladies Player of the Year last season.
“It was a difficult choice to make but obviously I was only going to play with the Ireland, so that took over. I got the opportunity to come to Arsenal and since then I haven’t looked back,” said Fahey, who was playing with Galway’s Salthill Devon FC in 2008 when she was spotted by Arsenal.
“At that stage I was still more of a GAA player. I didn’t play a huge amount with Salthill Devon, it was mainly Gaelic football. I trained mostly as a Gaelic football player.”
Had she stayed in GAA, it’s hard to believe Fahey would have been anything other than a success. However, she now has enough medals to prove the move has been a huge success. All that’s missing from her collection is the Champions League, but that could be about to change.