Savannah McCarthy
Ireland, Republic of Ireland football team, Women's football

Extraordinary leader amongst women

“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.

Role Model
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.

Extraordinary Leader
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.

The Elite
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.

Andy Donlan

Ireland finish their Elite Qualifier fixtures against Azerbaijan (19:30) tonight and next Sunday against Poland (14:00) – both games are at Tallaght Stadium.

Ireland in the Mini World Cup in Brazil, 1972
Brazilian Independence Cup 1972, General football, Ireland, Minicopa, Republic of Ireland football team

Ireland in the 1972 Mini World Cup

“It was an unbelievable experience”, describes Turlough O’Connor.

It might be stretching it slightly to say that Ireland’s maiden World Cup victory actually came 18 years before that shoot-out victory against Romania at Italia ’90. But in the summer of 1972 the Republic of Ireland contested the Minicopa (or Mini World Cup/Brazilian Independence Cup) in Brazil. Organisers secured over one quarter of the teams who competed in the previous World Cup for this tournament, which marked 150 years of Brazilian Independence from Portugal. Striker Turlough O’Connor was in between a move from Dundalk back to Bohemians – who he had made his name with previously, earning his cross channel move to Fulham – when he was paid a visit by then Ireland boss, Liam Tuohy.

“I’ll never forget the call-up. I came around the corner at home and my daughter, Niamh – only 2 at the time – had walked around from our home in Ardmore Drive and there sitting on the wall with my wife was Liam Tuohy. He asked, ‘How would you be fixed to come to Brazil?’ But it was for 3 weeks. Suddenly I was working around in my head whether I’ll be able to get time off work or not.” He’d secure the time off work to join the likes of: Ray Treacy; Joe Kinnear; Alan Kelly; Mick Leech; Don Givens and Paddy Mulligan, in a strong but small Irish squad on the plane to Brazil.
Ireland got their campaign off to a flier in Recife – where they’d play 3 of their 4 games – defeating Asian representatives, Iran, 2-1. Although it could have been a disastrous start for Ireland before a ball was even kicked. The pre-match national anthems were shelved just before kick-off, when it was discovered the music the band were intending to play was that of, God Save the Queen. Bloody Sunday had occurred in Derry that January.

Next it was onto Natal – a coastal city – which sits just over 600 km south of the equator – for the mid-June clash with Ecuador. O’Connor describes a bleak scene in the northern city. “In ’72 in Brazil in that northern area, the hardship and the poverty was unreal, it was like nothing I had ever seen or experienced before. It was difficult to see. In Natal they had this ship of hope – it was an American ship with doctors and nurses that went in to help the people. It’s amazing to think that when we talk about ’72 in Brazil and you see this happening in Europe now at this time, it’s frightening that it could happen 40 years later.” The ship, the SS Hope, was a re-fitted US Navy ship whose mission was, “No pill and band-aid handout”, instead leaving a legacy of medical knowledge and training.
In the game Ireland came from 2-1 down to defeat the acclimatised South Americans and it was O’Connor who lobbed in the winner with 6 minutes remaining. Ireland managed to win 3-2, even with the second half sending off of Don Givens. The stadium where the match was played will forever be remembered in World Cup folklore, as the re-built version of that arena was that of Suárez bite fame from last summer’s World Cup.

Seeing red
The squad journeyed back south to Recife for the third match against Chile, which was to be O’Connor’s last game of the tournament. The striker received a straight red card for slamming into a Chilean opponent, showing his frustration after he adamantly claims Ireland should have been awarded a penalty. Even now, over 40 years on, there’s animation in the Athlone man’s voice when he speaks of the incident. He didn’t go quietly at the time either, as a match report in the Irish Times describes. Whilst making his way towards the dressing rooms, “On the way, O’Connor tore off his shirt and waved it at the jeering crowd”. Ireland had succumbed to their first defeat of the tournament, 2-1. That red card meant that O’Connor would sit out the final group fixture against Portugal, although Ireland were effectively out – needing to win by a considerable margin against the group favourites.

“Portugal would have been one of the favourites at the time, especially with the squad of players that they had”, explained O’Connor. Mick Leech scored for Ireland in what O’Connor describes as a disappointing 2-1 defeat [view goals]. “We played very well against Portugal and were very unlucky not to get a result. I was really looking forward to that one. I would have loved to play against Portugal and Eusébio too.”
Portugal went on to win the group and qualify for the 8-team elite phase. Then after seeing off: Argentina; Uruguay and Soviet Union, they rather ironically qualified for the Brazilian Independence Cup final against hosts, Brazil. Before a baying audience of over ninety-nine thousand, Brazil defeated their once colonial masters, 1-0 at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro. Jairzinho’s 89th minute deftly flicked header sealed an emotional triumph for Brazil, as 150 years on, Portugal were once again sent back across the Atlantic empty handed.
O’Connor went on to a distinguished club career as a player and a manager, although he only picked up a handful more Irish caps.

Film stars
Sipping on his tea and nibbling on a digestive, O’Connor reflects on the tournament as a special time. “There was a great atmosphere in the country (Brazil) for football. One thing, because you were representing a country, immediately they were in awe of you and they treated you like film stars more than footballers. That was one of the first times that I ever experienced that”.

For the love of it
The Julies Rimet trophy may not have been on offer for this tournament, but for O’Connor international football was about more than trophies and medals. “Today’s world when you think about some of the guys who have no enthusiasm to play for their country. It saddens me. With the finance and the money, it seems to have taken preference over the pride of actually playing for your country. You are going on a tour of Brazil for three weeks and playing for your country, money didn’t come into it at all. Being picked and presenting your country was far more important than money”.
Today, international cry-offs have become all too common place, as the modern footballer makes vast sums of money and views the evasion of international football as a means to extend their club careers, in a bid to prolong their earning power. However it is O’Connor who will re-call rich memories of pulling on the green jersey in the summer of ’72, when an international cap was priceless.

Andy Donlan