By Damian Dolan
Marie Hourihan has never been one to shy away from a challenge – indeed she’s actively gone looking for them during her career.
Her move to Portugal’s SC Braga last year from Brighton & Hove Albion was in keeping with that need to keep on testing herself, to keep on improving.
Competition is what she thrives on.
When she joined Chelsea in 2013, she went toe-to-toe with Sweden’s record caps holder Hedvig Lindah, and then on to Manchester City where England number one Karen Bardsley was the incumbent.
Not to mention taking over between the posts for Ireland from 134-time capped Emma Byrne. Big gloves to fill.
Finding herself surrounded by “top internationals” on the training pitch during her career is what pushes her on “as a person and as a player”.
“You can either crumble or you step up and embrace it,” she told the Irish World.
“If I want to compete with these people then I have to raise my own standards and push myself.”
Arriving at SC Braga, Hourihan first had to displace the club’s then first-choice goalkeeper (a Portuguese international). Yet another challenge.
As if learning a new language and adapting to another culture wasn’t enough, Hourihan wasn’t even guaranteed first-team football when she arrived.
The previous season, the team had conceded just six goals on its way to winning Portugal’s top-flight league for the first time in its history.
“I like that; I like competition. It brings out the best attributes in me,” she adds.
“You can’t stand still – you have to be working every day at 100 per cent or you won’t get picked.”
Up until recently, she’s been “in the thick of it” as SC Braga try to make it back-to-back titles. They’re currently third in the table.
That will take a backseat for the next week or so to Ireland’s Euro 2021 qualifying campaign.
Braga also reached the last 32 of the Champions League, going out to PSG who are now Arsenal’s next opponents. Still a “good experience” says Hourihan.
The move to Portugal – not a top table nation in the women’s game – raised the odd eyebrow.
Although she didn’t know much about the Portuguese league, Braga was the opportunity she’d been looking for to “step out of the comfort zone”.
It was a move she’d always wanted to make, from a “life perspective”. For Hourihan, it was always about more than just football.
“It’s about embracing living in another country and the different culture,” she says.
“I’m glad that I did it. It’s tested and challenged me as a footballer and I’ve grown, both as a footballer and as a person,” she said.
She’s had to adjust. The general pace of life is “a lot slower” compared to London, Manchester or Brighton.
“A 3pm meeting probably won’t start for another 30 or 45 minutes,” says Hourihan, who is getting to grips with the language.
“I understand it, but speaking it is a little harder,” she said.
“During training or in a game, I always speak in Portuguese. The manager speaks completely in Portuguese.
“But if you asked me to have a 30-minute conversation it would all be in pigeon [Portuguese].”
The sport is growing within the country.
Portuguese giants Benfica are the latest club to embrace the women’s game – they’ve set their stall out to be a top eight team in Europe within the next few years – and Hourihan can see them having a similar impact on the women’s game there, as Manchester City did on it here.
“It’s made other clubs step up in terms of how much they’re investing in their women’s and girls team,” said Hourihan.
It’s all a very long way from Belmont United girls team – Hourihan’s first club when she was nine years old.
Up until then, she played soccer alongside the boys at St Anselm’s Catholic Primary School in Harrow-on-the-Hill.
Hourihan describes herself as “Harrow born and bred” – her parents, John and Marianne, still live there.
Her mum’s family are from Roscommon and her dad’s are from Cork.
She recalls growing up in a “tight-knit Irish community” in the west London suburb. Mass on a Sunday and then into St Joseph’s Social Club was the routine.
She can also count Aston Villa and Ireland’s Conor Hourihane as a second cousin, although she “didn’t have a clue” about the family connection until it was pointed out, and they’ve never actually met.
After St Anselm’s, she attended Douay Martyrs Secondary School in Ickenham and then St Dominic’s Sixth Form College in Harrow.
— FAI Women (@FAIWomen) March 3, 2020
It was her mum who found a local club for her to join, Belmont United.
“That was it then; training twice a week and matches on Sundays. It was religious,” Hourihan recalls.
She was named U12 girls Players’ player of the season for 1998/99 – an achievement that found its way into a local newspaper.
She “messed around” with GAA when she went back to Ireland growing up, but soccer was always where her passion lay.
“I had an older brother (Christopher) and I just wanted to do everything that he did – we’d be in the back garden [playing football],” said Hourihan, who started off as a striker.
She didn’t try her hand at being a goalkeeper until she was 13, and only then in an emergency.
“The Belmont goalkeeper got injured and as the biggest I had to fill in. I played the game, saved a penalty and that was it,” she recalled. Hourihan thought “this will do”.
🗣 “We’ve got some payback to get. Home advantage will do it for us, we’re going to be far more prepared and ready.”
— FAIreland ⚽️🇮🇪 (@FAIreland) March 4, 2020
It was then things got a little more serious. A successful trial with Fulham saw her sign for the club as a “very raw” goalkeeper. Football was now her “life”.
By 15, Hourihan was playing senior football at Watford, and after a spell with Doncaster Rovers Belles she joined Birmingham City.
She helped the Blues to twice finish as runners up in the Women’s Super League, and reach an FA Cup final, despite commuting to Birmingham from London for training four times a week.
“That was a lot of mileage,” she says.
A qualified accountant, she was able to “put her calculator away” when she signed as a full-time professional for Chelsea in 2013.
She won a Women’s Super League title with Chelsea in 2015 and again with Man City the following year.
“You couldn’t even guess the magnitude. It would be monumental.”
— FIFA Women’s World Cup (@FIFAWWC) March 3, 2020
Taking over from Byrne as Ireland’s first-choice goalkeeper in 2017 is something she descries as a “privilege” and an “honour”.
She now sees it as being up to her, and her contemporises, to carry on the high standards Byrne set.
She’s also acutely aware of the impact she, and her teammates are having, and can continue to have, in inspiring others.
The success the Ireland Women’s team is currently enjoying is “empowering women’s sport”.
“The better our results and the more exposure the team gets, can only begood for women’s sport in Ireland. More girls will start taking up sport,” she said.
“You see it constantly – the interaction we get on social media. More girls see football as a career.”