“Savannah is a special girl. Her style of play, that comes from my kind of era. There’s so few of them knocking around today, not even in the Premiership in England. Really, blood and guts, not afraid to tackle, puts her body on the line.” They are the words of Ireland Women’s under-19 manager Dave Connell. He is speaking about Savannah McCarthy, a 19 year-old centre half from Listowel, Co. Kerry. At 19 she is the most exciting prospect in the women’s game in Ireland. She’s the aggressive centre half that every manager dreams of and every centre forward dreads. Once described by manager, Connell as a, “Toughie on the pitch, and a lady off the park”. Her role model status is untouchable in a world where genuine figures are short in supply.
Connell admits, “She is a role model to traveller women, all women in fact and young kids across the country. Whenever we are down at the Gaynor Cup (in Limerick) all of the fans want their photograph with Savannah, I think that’s fantastic, she deserves that. She’s an absolute gem of a player and very few of them come around too often, but I was lucky enough to work with her.” At 19 years of age they are pretty good references to add to your growing CV, particularly from the experienced Connell, who spent 20 years playing League of Ireland between 1979 and 1999 – listing Bohemians, Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers and Limerick amongst his employers.
Savannah McCarthy is no ordinary 19 year-old though. Spotted playing in a Munster representative side, she has gone on to captain Ireland at under-15, under-16, under-17 and now under-19 level. She was also presented with the Irish Traveller Pride Award 2013 by a personal role model of hers, 11-times capped Ireland midfielder, Katie Taylor. McCarthy reluctantly admits – when I put it to her – she has now become a role model herself, not just to young traveller women, but to all women. She is further proof of the shifting mind-set amongst travellers – females in particular – which Love/Hate actor John Connors highlighted in his recent documentary, I Am Traveller, where he explores traveller identity in Ireland today. “Across the country more and more travellers are staying in school. Traveller women are getting back into education and it seems women have more of a want for it”, stated Connors. McCarthy recently delayed her entry into professional football to complete her Leaving Certificate. She has now completed her transfer to one of Scotland’s premier clubs, Glasgow City, who are managed by former Borussia Dortmund, Aberdeen and Scotland striker, Scott Booth. She can look forward to rubbing shoulders with Europe’s elite in the UEFA Women’s Champions League this summer.
Her honest, no nonsense approach on the park and her popularity off it display real leadership qualities. When quizzed as to where her drive and leadership skills emanate, she is typically shy upon self-reflection. Dad, Stephen, who, “Never misses a game” and family members are mentioned, however under-19s boss Connell says, “I think that comes from within. She arrived in as a young scrawny kid a couple of years ago and we saw the potential in her. She worked very, very hard on her fitness, very, very hard at her game and not only did that for herself, but pushed her teammates on as well. She’s an extraordinary talent and an extraordinary leader.”
As I put the next question to her, a giggly smile lights up her face. She has the widest smile in not only the lobby, but the entire City West Hotel complex for that matter. No mean feat either, as the Sunday matinée performance of, Disney On Ice’s Silver Anniversary has just finished in the adjoining conference centre. The hotel lobby is literally swamped by little five-year-olds dressed as Princesses, high on life (and sugar). Last month, reward for Savannah’s hard work duly arrived in Deryneia, a village situated on the east coast of Cyprus. The village is located a short distance from the infamous Ayia Napa resort – where many young girls of McCarthy’s age might be drawn on a visit to the isle. Savannah had more important business to attend to, as she joined the Ireland Senior Women’s team for the Cyprus Cup tournament. In the last 10 minutes of the opening game against Austria, Ireland manager, Sue Ronan looked in her direction. “My heart was going a bit”, McCarthy explains. “Sue told me to warm-up and I came on with a few minutes to go. My début was obviously really exciting and it was something that I wanted to do from a young age. It was pretty special”, she beamed. Two days later, she made her full début in a one, one draw against Italy.
Back home and hoping to emulate the performances of 2014, where the Ireland under-19 side reached the semi-finals of the European Championship, Savannah reported for her last campaign under manager Dave Connell at Ireland under-19 level. On Tuesday Ireland faced the fancied Germans at Tallaght Stadium. McCarthy put in a typically tenacious performance at centre-half, however Ireland came out the wrong side of a one, nil score-line. Appropriately named, the Elite Qualifiers, only the six group winners (of four teams per group) will join hosts Slovakia in the promised land of this summers’ finals. The goals will have to come early and often in the other group games if Ireland are to be in with a chance of securing qualification through the sole best runners-up spot, should they finish second behind Germany in Group 1. Germany were the better side.
At the end of that game, Savannah dropped to her knees and looked up to the sky in despair. In a touching moment, she was then comforted by colleague and ex-UCD Waves teammate, Niamh Prior – acknowledging the physical and emotional investment of her captain. They’ll both go on to better days.
You get the feeling that more often than not, it will be opposition strikers acting out that scene from frustration at McCarthy’s towering performances. So don’t expect to see this rising star on her knees for very long.
Ireland finish their Elite Qualifier fixtures against Azerbaijan (19:30) tonight and next Sunday against Poland (14:00) – both games are at Tallaght Stadium.