Katie McCabe: ‘I thought my Arsenal career was over and I got a lifeline’

When Katie McCabe returned to Arsenal from a successful loan at Glasgow City in 2017 she did not expect she would be staying. She had struggled for playing time and with injuries after turning down a host of other teams to join the trophy-laden club in December 2015 and was not a part of the then manager Pedro Martínez Losa’s plans.

“When I came back from Glasgow City we trained for two weeks and I was out of contract in the December and [the new manager] Joe Montemurro sat me down after the two weeks’ training and then he said he was going to offer me a contract extension to the summer and I was thrilled,” she says. “To be honest I thought my Arsenal career was over and he gave me a lifeline.”

That period of uncertainty now feels a world away. As the supporters’ player of last season, she provided 11 assists, the joint-most in the Women’s Super League, and scored four times. Now, five games in, the Republic of Ireland captain has three goals and three assists, matching her in-form clubmate Beth Mead despite playing predominantly at left-back, has been named the Barclays WSL player of the month for October, was named by the Arsenal legend Ian Wright as his current favourite player and was praised in the international break by the Ireland great Paul McGrath.

“I didn’t know that actually,” she says with a grin when told she has matched Mead’s stats in fewer minutes. “Me getting up there to help create those goalscoring opportunities and get shots away is down to the team, the position we’re in off the ball and the organisation we have all over the park. Being on the end of the goals is obviously really nice.”

The players were “gutted” when Montemurro announced he would leave this summer but are thriving under Jonas Eidevall, who recognised that the foundations laid by his predecessor, and the steps the club had taken to strengthen before his arrival, meant he did not need to overhaul the squad.

“You can always improve each season,” McCabe says. “It was down to the coaching staff and Jonas to figure out how we could do that, and we worked on things from the start of the summer.

“We had a lot of players at the Olympics but our academy players came up and came in and it was really important that we had them in the pre-season friendly games to help us get on target and up to scratch.”

McCabe, a fan favourite for club and country because her slick play is coupled with a fiery, no-nonsense but also playful attitude on the pitch, has been given one of the catchiest chants (to the tune of Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart) by Arsenal fans. She admits she gets it stuck in her head. “It always makes me smile when I’m playing; even though I might have a cranky face on me I’m smiling on the inside,” she says with a laugh.

McCabe’s versatility – she can play on the wing or at full-back – is valued. She has switched so often between the positions that she no longer has a favourite. “It changes week by week,” she says. “I do really like left-back now but if you had asked me that two or three seasons ago I would have said left wing.”

The 26-year-old’s position in the team is unquestionable. With the arrival of forwards such as Tobin Heath and Nikita Parris it would have been easy for McCabe to wonder whether opportunities to play on the wing would be limited but her form, combined with the heavy schedule, has meant she is being used in both roles by Eidevall and to great effect.

“You always have to be confident in your own ability,” she says. “When the girls started to get announced, the signings, it was more a feeling of excitement about being able to play with them; about how much they’re going to improve training, improve games and obviously add competitiveness to training. Everyone has to be at the top of the game and that only helps the team.”

McCabe’s form is also benefiting Ireland. Last month in World Cup qualifying they lost 1-0 to Sweden courtesy of an own goal but beat Finland away in a game seen as crucial to their hopes of reaching a first major tournament.

“Over the last few months we’ve really tested ourselves against higher-ranked opposition to get used to those stress scenarios of playing where we’re going to be without the ball but ultimately you need to get results, and that showed,” she says. “I know ultimately we lost the game against Sweden but especially in the second half we went toe to toe with them at times and really put them under pressure.”

In September it was announced that the Ireland women’s team would be paid the same as the men. “It was monumental for us, to be honest,” says McCabe. “The work that the FAI had done, Séamus Coleman as the men’s captain too, that work behind the scenes to ultimately get the deal done was fantastic. It sent out a real message across the world of football at international level especially.

“We’re making strides and from when I first came in to where we’re at I’m really proud of it. But we want to keep pushing, we want to keep breaking down barriers and keep that momentum going. We can’t sit still and that’s the message we want to send.”