How have I got to where I am today? In the same way that I defend: with hard work, passion and by facing every challenge head-on.
I think that’s how I’ve tried to approach life. I don’t think I’ve always been that way, but I’ve learned enough about myself over the last few years to know it’s the best way for me to approach every challenge.
There’s that question: why do so many teenage girls step out of sport when they get to a certain age? What makes me different? I don’t really have an answer, I guess I’ve always seen an end goal and I just love football.
Whatever possible way that was going to lead me to get there - I'm not even sure if I sometimes saw a way there - I just knew that I loved football so much that I had to keep going. There was no question in my mind that I would ever stop playing. To me, that's probably just because I love the game so much.
There were always footballs around the house when I was growing up. My dad was a Gaelic football player and a Liverpool fan, so there are pictures of me from when I was 18 months old with a football under my arm. That was just the way it was - I guess I just liked round things that I could pick up and kick around!
I'm sure that's something that my mam and dad just spotted, that I was that age and climbing on couches, so they could see that I had a slightly more sporty edge compared to my sisters. They just kept feeding into it and the logical thing to do was to go and find a team.
My best friend at school was quite good at football and his dad was the coach of the under-six teams in Blessington, so that was it really. It was easy to get in there and play, so I was literally just playing with my friends and the majority of those playing were boys at the time.
I was young, so it all felt normal really. Trying to think back to it now, there were definitely times where I was going along to football and some of the parents maybe weren't sure if I should have been playing with the boys. They’d ask if it was too rough for me or whether I’d get hurt playing with the boys, but then I was probably taller than a lot of the boys back then!
Thinking back, my mam would always tell me that there were so many years I deserved to win Player of the Year but they never gave it to me because I'm a girl, but that I shouldn't let that stop me. You just have to do your talking on the pitch but thankfully for me, I wasn't really aware of the challenges I was facing too much when I was a kid. I just took it in my stride. You just go for it and do what you love.
After all, there weren't too many female football role models for me back then. When I finally got into Lakeside, a girls team, when I was nine or so, there were the Player of the Year awards. The one for under-15s was the Ann McLoughlin Cup. She was absolutely brilliant at football and was around the Irish national team because she was so good, but unfortunately passed away in a motorcycle accident.
Anyway, what it meant was that any time the awards came around, that was the most important one for me, the one that I wanted to win – and I might have won it once or twice! I'd never met Ann or seen her play, but you heard all these stories and it made you want to win the award in her honour.
Then once a year you'd see the Women's FA Cup on BBC, so you would see players like Emma Byrne, Ciara Grant, Yvonne Tracy and then later Niamh Fahey. These were Irish girls playing for Arsenal and I’d be watching it on TV in Blessington, not thinking I’d ever have the chance to pull on that jersey.
Don’t get me wrong, I always wanted to keep going to see where I could go, to see what I could achieve by working really hard. But did I ever think Arsenal would ever be in my sights? Probably not – and it’s not been an easy journey getting here, either!
I left Lakeside to join Peamount United as a teenager and became club captain at 16 or 17, which was a bit intimidating. At that time, Eileen Gleeson – now the national team assistant coach – had just come in as head coach and had seen something in me, and also wanted to start a fresh project, so she gave me the armband.
That was really big for me because everyone there was older than me, but there was something about that team. We really were all friends. It didn't matter that I was 16, I was really good friends with some of older players and we would hang out off the pitch too.
We were also lucky with the facilities because they had one of the best pitches in the league. It's still one of the best facilities in Ireland with two 11-a-side pitches, a great clubhouse, three or four seven-a-side pitches and that was literally down to the chairman, Denis Cummins, who looks after everything and everyone so well.
Actually, there's a story about Denis which just proves how much he cares about the club. When we were in the Champions League, we needed to raise money for the flights to away games. We'd be bag packing at local supermarkets to fundraise for trips in the last-32 and trying to sell the tickets at charity comedy nights. We were taking these collection buckets anywhere we could to try to get some money, even going to my next-door neighbours and asking for them to sponsor us a fiver.
Anyway, there was a time when Denis' wife was out shopping, handed over their card to pay and it got declined. She phoned up Denis to tell him their card had been declined and he goes, 'Oh yeah, I kinda used the money so we could pay for the girls to get to Slovenia'. He used his own money because at the time we still hadn't fundraised enough, and it was thousands and thousands that he paid, just because he loved the club and wanted to support us as much as he could.
It was all worth it in the end because I scored a hat-trick against ZNK Krka! We won 7-0 and at the time I was a central midfielder, believe it or not, box to box. I was on set-pieces, free-kicks... I was good! For some reason in my head I'm thinking it was the perfect hat-trick of a left foot, right foot and a header but maybe that's just me...
But that was the first time an Irish team had reached the last-32, so it was extremely special. When the game finished, all I was thinking was that I needed to get the matchball and I've still got it now. It was one of the classic adidas Predator balls, one of the World Cup ones. We’d get knocked out by PSG in the last-32, but I still remember it as an incredible journey.
The following season we qualified for the Champions League again, but I had been with the national team and seen some of the girls playing abroad. At that time, we had the Arsenal girls and then there were a few in Germany, Sweden, France, there were a few scattered around.
I was rooming with Fiona O'Sullivan who was playing all over Europe. Anyway, one day she says to me, 'You could do that, you could play in Europe'. I'm like, 'Could I?' and she says, 'Yes, you can play for teams somewhere outside of Ireland'. It planted a seed, I guess. I'd gone through uni and got my degree, and then there was a new course that had just come up in Ireland, which was sports and exercise with football, or with rugby, or with Gaelic football.
Our national team goalkeeping coach developed that and thought it could be a good test for me because it meant I would be training four or five times a week and also in the gym. But also, I would be training with the lads, only a few girls. That course built up my stamina and my confidence to think I'd be able to go full-time because previously we had only been training two days a week before playing a match.
After that, Fiona put me in touch with an agent and then I made my own showreel. In the gym I was working out in, I did seven hours of clipping for seven minutes of video, literally. That was it, I sent it to my agent and there was a team in Sweden that showed an interest. It seemed like they wanted to invest in the future and even though they were in the second division, they wanted to reach the top level.
Within the first year, we won the league, we got promoted, then we came in seventh of 12 or 14 teams. The year after that, we came second to get into the Champions League, so within three years we'd gone from second division up to the top of the first division. That experience in Sweden was literally life-changing from all aspects. I saw a club being built up from not so much to competing in the last-16 of the Champions League.
Then there was the weather. I remember being in the hotel that I was staying in before I moved into my accommodation and there was genuinely like two foot of snow outside. I couldn't see five or 10 yards past it. The snow was hammering it down and I said to myself at that time, 'What am I doing here? Why am I here?'
When I first moved to Sweden, even some Swedish people didn't know where Eskilstuna was! I didn't have a clue what I was letting myself in for. I would be driving my car through pure snow and ice and nobody else seemed bothered. In fact, not one training session was ever cancelled and we always trained outside.
The pitch would be covered in snow, but they'd clear it and we'd train as normal while the temperature would drop to minus 18. My eyelashes would literally be freezing. Between December, January and February, when we were doing pre-season, there were only a few hours of light as well, but then during the summer it would be amazing. It was a great place to be.
After three years I felt my time in Sweden was up. I put as much as I could into it and just needed a lifestyle change, a football change and I wanted to be a bit closer to home. Even though it wasn't that far away from Ireland, it was really difficult journey. It was two flights to get over and a good two-hour journey from the main airport, so I didn't get a lot of visitors because it was such a hassle.
At the time, Notts County had a really good reputation and they were one of those really tough teams to break down. I was really excited when the opportunity came up but then once I got there, it was very difficult. We were training on Sunday league pitches. It could be rock solid one day and a mud bath the next if it rained a bit. Then, after we played a couple of FA Cup games, it got worse.
You heard some rumours the club was in a little bit of trouble but that was all it was, rumours. The new guy who had come in was fixing it, they'd brought in another player and me, and then offered the existing players new contracts. They said they had it under control but that wasn't the case.
We were due to play Arsenal on the Sunday, but I got a text on the Thursday saying, 'Hey, training's cancelled, can you come into the offices on Friday?' which was odd because training doesn't really get cancelled. Our captain, Laura Bassett, went and spoke to them first. Alan Hardy, the owner, didn't even turn up, he got some people we'd never met to break the news to us that the club was gone. He didn't have the courage to turn up and tell us that we were all losing our jobs. That was it.
We were sat there asking ourselves what we could do about it, but we literally couldn't do anything. There were no wages and the league was starting on the Sunday. The Euros was that summer as well, so a lot of the English girls were worried about their national team places.
Thankfully the league allowed the window to reopen and Arsenal became an option. The timing was so right. There were a couple of injuries to the centre backs who were here at the time, so it was perfect.
Arsenal gave me a short-term deal until the end of the Spring Series, so I was going into games knowing that I had absolutely nothing to lose. I'd already felt what it was like to go from Sweden to rediscover my love for the game, to losing my job and everything going horribly wrong. I think my attitude at the time was basically, 'Just go and enjoy it and see what happens next, what's the worst that can happen?'
Whatever was going to happen was going to happen, so that was my approach. To be coming here with this club's history, I just knew that I had to get stuck into it. I was playing without fear. In one of my first training sessions with Arsenal, everything I touched was just golden. I was pinging it this way and the other, winning every tackle... I was just like, 'This is nice, let's just try to keep going this way'.
In the first few weeks Alex Scott told me that she liked how much I talked during games and that gave me loads of confidence. I was a relative unknown coming in from Sweden but I wasn't afraid to still show my qualities and see what they can bring to the team.
When I came, I was just a real, real defender. It didn't matter where the ball ended up, as long as it ended up away from our goal and was taken away from their players. I brought that here and I think that was something that Pedro and the girls liked at the time because it was a different energy.
So we went through the Spring Series and I didn't actually find out I'd be staying for longer until after it finished. I went home and was just waiting and hoping that something was going to happen. I think it was probably more in my mind that I'd have to look for a different club. I had no clue that they would want to keep me on here.
Then my agent tells me that they were impressed with what they saw from me and that they wanted me to keep it going for another year. I can't remember how I reacted at the time, but I know I'd have been thrilled to have been given a proper chance at this great club. That's probably when the nerves started kicking in! The Spring Series was fine because it felt like there was no pressure whereas when I got a proper contract, that's when I thought, 'Now I'm an Arsenal player, this is pressure'. But seriously, it was a huge honour and is something that I wasn't expecting.
I guess that's what made the title win last season so sweet as well. It had been a long time since I'd won a league and the fact the club hadn't won it for seven years at that stage made it even more special. You definitely think back to those little moments, especially when you see some of the girls in the league who were playing for Notts County at the time and went through those hard times with you.
Players like Carly Telford, Angharad James and about three or four of the girls who were at Brighton - any time we see each other in the league, there's always a nice embrace where we can say, 'We got there in the end, we made something of this bad situation'. It’s only sometimes when you look back at it that you realise there is a bit of a story to tell but in the moment of winning the league, I was focusing on that and loving every second of it. It was really special and we just thoroughly deserved it. We had a lot of injuries and comebacks, so it was a real squad effort. That was unreal.
I was actually talking to Katie about this the other day. If she wasn't here, it would have been a completely different experience for me. I think we're able to bring the best out of each other and when things maybe aren't going great, we trust each other, we rely on each other and we know when the right time is to put an arm around the other person. We used to play against each other all the time in the Irish league and she was such a little terror - she was a demon! So now when I watch her perform how she is, especially this season, is incredible.
She's captain of the Irish team and she took on a lot at a young age, so watching how she's dealt with that player and has carried that experience into the Arsenal squad to become a leader on the pitch… you just watch her play and she's so talented, passionate and hard-working. She has all those elements and she's a great role model too, something I'm trying to develop with the 20x20 #CantSeeCantBe campaign.
I'm really lucky to get an opportunity to do it and it's something that I have been really passionate about before. I just want to be able to grow the game. I love being a footballer but I want to be able to create more pathways and make sure that it's possible for young girls to see that there's a way to do it.
I look at myself and think how incredibly lucky I am. I've come from a really small town in Ireland and I'm not a flair player or anything flash, but I worked hard. If you work hard as a person, believe you can do it and love football, then of course you can do it. I'm an example of that.
I've been able to travel all over Europe and wear the Irish jersey, wear the Arsenal jersey, play in the Champions League and meet incredible people. For me it's just trying to build on that from my own experience of maybe things I've missed out on. I want to develop sport and make things happen.
I've just absolutely loved what it's brought. There is this buzz in Ireland and everyone knows or has heard about it now. The number of tweets and messages that come through with #20x20 or #CantSeeCantBe and all this stuff... people are getting involved and things have grown. To get things grown by 20 per cent is a minimum and at the moment it's only 20 per cent of a small figure, but it's just about trying to build that up in every way possible.
We've got badminton, kayaking, shot-put throwers, motor-racing - everything in any sport. It's completely widened the spectrum and just given like me a chance to be a role model. After football, it's probably my proudest achievement.
Like I said at the start, my hard work, dedication and passion has got me this far. I want to use that hard work, dedication and passion to inspire young girls to achieve whatever they want, wherever they come from. That’s the legacy I want to leave behind.
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