When I first arrived here at Arsenal, I guess I was naive to the big bad world that was London and professional football.
Growing up in Ireland, I played at amateur level, but dedicated every moment of my life to my development and growth as a player. Before I signed for Arsenal, I used to train five days a week with a boys team, three times a week with my team Raheny United, and then I’d play on the Sunday. It’s all I ever wanted to do.
But when I finally became an Arsenal player and signed that first professional contract… well, it’s hard to explain just how big of a change that was for me. And if it wasn’t for Emma Byrne, I don’t know where I’d be today.
From getting me to the club and putting her arm around me, to giving advice in some of the toughest moments of my career so far, she’s just an absolute hero. When I first moved to the club she was rooming with Emma Mitchell and I’d never met Mitchy before, but she let me stay over on one of my first nights in London and that was the start of something great! They’re two players right from the start who really looked after me, Fara Williams too.
In terms of football, I just remember thinking that the step up in quality was ridiculous. It was an absolute joke, yet here I was coming in from Dublin and going straight into a squad with players like Emma Byrne, Jordan Nobbs, Dan Carter, Casey Stoney, Alex Scott, oh and Kelly Smith! Kelly Smith! That was a real learning curve for me because I could see how far away I was in terms of my development as a player and what I needed to do to reach those heights.
In terms of London life, I don’t think I left St Albans once in the first six months! I guess that’s just always been my mentality, I came here to play football, not tour around London! I still don’t go into London much now, to be honest, if at all! I actually really struggled to settle into St Albans. It just wasn’t homely for me and it all felt so different to Dublin, but now I’m sitting here loving it.
If if I’m being completely honest, there was a time when I actually doubted whether I could do it. Not just making it at Arsenal, but professional football in general. I remember speaking to my older sister, Vanessa, in July 2016 about it because I hadn’t really kicked on in the way that I hoped I would, so I asked her whether I was doing the right thing. She gave me the best response I could have ever ask for… ‘Shut up, Katie.’
She knew how much I’d sacrificed to get there and she told me again and again that I’m supposed to be there, that I’ve earned it, and that I will make it work. I’ll never forget that conversation, and I haven’t doubted myself for a moment since. I’ve never shared that moment with anyone before.
I think at that time when I signed, I thought of myself as a goalscoring forward and I came over with the confidence to really get at defenders. I was doing really well with the senior national team at just 19, so I really thought of myself as an attack-minded and tough Irish player, if you like. But looking back now, I’ve realised I was never really a goalscorer. I scored goals, but I was certainly no Vivianne Miedema, let’s put it that way…
I was a really ambitious player and I wanted to make my mark on the team, but the calibre of players we had in the side was ridiculous and I only signed a two-year deal, so after I didn’t get much game time during my first 12 months, I was wary of my age and that I simply needed to play to keep developing and growing.
I hoped to get a loan move, but we were coming into the Spring Series and I had another six months until the summer, so I had to get my head down and didn’t play much at all. I’ll tell you what sums up my situation at the time… we went to Seattle on an end-of-season tour and we were going to play Seattle Reign, and Kim Little was playing for them at the time, so I was buzzing and I was on track to get some minutes. Anyway, the next day I fell over in training, Dan Carter stood on my hand and just like that it was broken. The first day of training!
That’s when I decided that Glasgow City would be the right move for me. I simply had to get back on track. Fara and Mitchy were both saying that I should stay in the WSL and fight for my place, but for me, in my mind, I needed to get out. I had to escape from that pressure environment, which was the WSL and the pressure of playing for Arsenal, and I needed to rediscover myself and what makes me tick on the pitch. That was the turning point in my Arsenal career.
That loan move reminded me why I love football and suddenly I was enjoying all of the little things again, like I always used to. But during that time, I was always keeping a close eye on Arsenal because I knew that a rebuild was underway at the time. A few of the legends had retired and we’d just signed Viv and Lisa, so I felt that I had a really good chance to prove myself again.
That’s when I met Joe Montemurro, and that’s when everything changed. Within one week of watching me in training, he just filled me with confidence and told me that I have to extend my contract because he needs me in his team. I loved that, it was just what I needed.
His message to me was simple, ‘Enjoy it’. Right from the start, Joe made it clear that he wanted honest players in terms of personality and performances. It’s actually hard to explain what Joe is like because he gives you this feeling more than anything else… but essentially, he told me that he wanted me to express myself on the pitch and that was the most comfortable I’d felt since arriving at the club.
The quality and intensity of those training sessions when he first arrived, wow. He had already started implementing the Montemurro way and by the time the summer came around, we were a totally different Arsenal. We were ready, we were ruthless, and we knew that we could cause an upset in the WSL.
That 2018/19 season was just incredible, and I think it goes to show how quickly things can change in football. It also goes to show that one person’s opinion of you doesn’t define you either. Joe instilled so much belief into me and I was ready to do anything for him and the team. I was loving who I was playing with, and most importantly, I was loving who I was playing for - you, the fans. That’s around the time that I first heard the ‘We’ve got McCabe’ chant and that meant a lot to me. All of a sudden, I really felt like I was part of this club and I knew that a real bond was forming.
I played in a few positions that season because naturally in Joe’s system, you’re expected to rotate, change and swap about on the pitch, especially when we had the kitchen sink thrown at us with injuries. I think I played in every position except goalkeeper! But I was still very much a winger at heart. In pretty much all of our big games that season, I started out on the right where I could cut inside and combine with Viv in that final third.
Fluidity has always been a part of the Montemurro way, but with injuries hitting hard and very few left-footed players in the squad, he turned to me to play at left back, and that’s where it all started. As a player, I think the bottom line for playing under someone like Joe is that you need to be comfortable on the ball, then you can almost play in any position.
This is where I need to give a shoutout to my good friend, Louise Quinn. I remember Joe kept putting me in at left back in more and more training drills and matches, and I remember turning to Louise mid-training and saying ‘Please just talk to me! Please!’. I’m an attack-minded player, so I needed someone like Louise who was going to be in my ear screaming for me to get back and cover her. I still had that winger’s instinct and I knew that I needed a loud voice in my ear. The fact it was an Irish one and from a player as committed and defensive as Louise certainly helped. It’s funny because I actually used to have to tuck in behind her when she’d go up for headers, but I honestly can’t remember the ball ever being flicked on. Seriously.
It’s funny looking back at that stage of my development as a wing back because I really never thought it would get this far, but at the same time, I never thought about moving further upfield again because we were still winning games, and now here we are today.
To be honest, once I got to the point where I was clearly settled in at left back and had put a lot of time and effort into the defensive side of my game, I switched my focus back to maintaining my attacking side. Joe agreed too. Whether it’s free-kicks, corners, getting up and down the line or cutbacks, I was still affecting the game from left back in the way that a winger would, but ultimately, I was still covering my defensive duties as well. Joe spotted that right from the off and it certainly required a lot of fitness, but I showed him that I can do it! Come the end of the season, I had a few conversations with Joe and that’s when it became clear that this is a position that he really trusted me in for the long-term.
I ended up speaking to our strength and conditioning coaches too because I really wanted to take my game to the next level. You can be the type of full back that only goes half up and half down and fills that defensive role, but with the way Joe plays, that just wasn’t going to work. In terms of taking up a more attacking role, it’s a little easier because we dominate a lot of possession against most teams and that means we’re in control and I’m not running back as much, but in those big games against City, United and Chelsea, I knew that I would have to be a real box-to-box player, so then we started discussing how I can do that.
Our S&C team started giving me regular targets for things like high-speed metre running that would allow me to do the job on a Sunday, and that’s the job of the team behind the team! Even if they can boost your numbers by one per cent, you never know, it could make all the difference in those big games that are decided by the smallest of margins. Those little gains can really make the difference, and I think you can see it in my game this season.
It’s taken a while… but I think I’ve genuinely grown to love the art of defending. I always believed that I could do a job in this role and I knew that I could provide assists, but when I started to really enjoy those last-ditch tackles and interceptions, that’s when I started to get scared because it was going against all my instincts as a winger! What’s happening to me?!
I was actually speaking to Louise about it more recently, and she asked whether I’m enjoying it, and I was like ‘Yeah, weirdly I am, Lou… I’m absolutely loving it!’.
Getting those numbers and seeing your name at the top of the assist chart is great because it’s a sign that you’re doing the right things, but ultimately, that’s not what I care about. Above all else, it’s about the team, it’s about winning, and it’s about making the fans smile.
Regardless of whether I’m on the wing, left back, or even for some bizarre reason in goal, I’ll do absolutely anything for this team. That’s who I’ve always been as a player and as a person, and I’m so proud that I’m here to stay.
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