For the past eleven years, Emma Byrne has stood between the posts for Arsenal Ladies, the most successful English team in the women’s game. She began her career at her local club, St. Patrick’s Athletic, in Dublin before spending a season playing for Fortuna Hjørring in Denmark, subsequently joining Arsenal. Having won every major honour in the English game, Emma was part of the Arsenal team that won the UEFA Cup in 2006/07. In that season, they completed the quadruple with a win against Umeå IK of Sweden over two games, having already won the FA Women’s Premier League, the FA Women’s Cup and the League Women’s Cup. Emma has represented the Republic of Ireland in goal on more than 70 occasions. She presently coaches one of the Arsenal Ladies Academy teams, and is working towards completing her UEFA B Licence (level 3). In this exclusive interview, Emma reveals how her country’s national sport of Gaelic football helped her naturally develop as a goalkeeper, how she feels all goalkeepers have to be a little crazy, and looks ahead to the launch of the FA Women’s Super League, which kicks off in April 2011.
Who were your early influences – in football, in sport, in life? I was always very sporty and all of my family are quite sporty. I played a lot of badminton and I was involved in athletics so I was always fairly self-motivated. My best friend’s mum was the manager of the local football team and wouldn’t let us miss a training session.
In what ways did your experience in Gaelic football prepare you for playing association football? Gaelic football was my primary sport. I played it every day and loved it! It’s really helped me as a goalkeeper, as Gaelic is all about catching the ball and kicking from the hands. A lot of female GK’s would say that catching from crosses would be their weakest aspect of their game, but I’m very comfortable with this because of the years playing Gaelic.
How was your time in Denmark with Fortuna Hjorring? It was a good experience and something I don’t regret. I went straight into playing professional football after school which is all footy girls’ dream! Although it was a nice lifestyle, I was very homesick and found the language barrier very difficult. It was the first time living away from home and I struggled with it. The club were great and allowed me to travel home every now and then.
What are your stand-out memories of the 2006/07 quadruple season? Obviously it would have to be the UEFA Cup final. It’s the biggest and most prestigious honour in women’s club football. We had won the league and cups in previous years and it was great to win them again but the UEFA cup was special.
A cheeky question, maybe – do you enjoy playing for the Republic of Ireland more than Arsenal, since there’s perhaps more to do in a game? I can’t say I enjoy it more as it’s completely different. Playing for your country is the biggest honour for me and it’s something I never take for granted. But I’m really looking forward to the new WSL and it brings new targets which is always motivating.
Many people say that keepers must be a little crazy to play such an exposed role. Do you agree? I would say all GK’s are a little crazy, in their own way. I’ve been playing in goal for 20 years now so I’m well use to it. I like the responsibility of being the last line of defence, especially when I’m playing well. I play a ‘sweeper-keeper’ role with Arsenal so I don’t feel isolated as such. Whenever the team is being addressed, I’m always included with the defenders so I feel part of that unit.
Ahead of the launch of the Super League, what are your thoughts on the women’s game in Ireland and the UK?Well, the women’s game in the UK is much more advanced than Ireland, from the set-up of the league to the standard of teams. That’s why most Irish players look to play abroad. I think the Super League will be a great success. The teams have all improved, they’re run more professionally and the games will be in the summer, so generally a better environment for family spectators.
How does the standard of playing and coaching compare with the women’s game abroad? The UK is up there with any country in Europe. At Arsenal we have great facilities and the coaches are top quality. England internationals have weight programmes and see personal instructors nearly every day. We’re on full time programmes and I always feel like I’m learning.
What would you like to see the new Super League achieve? I would like every league game to be a high tempo competitive match. I think this would draw in the crowds and hopefully fill the grounds. It would be great to see fans coming and supporting their teams. ESPN are covering some of the games and hopefully they will continue to do this as media exposure is crucial to the game.
Representing both club and country, what’s been your career highlight so far? Definitely winning the UEFA cup is up there with the best of the highlights. The other highlight of my career will always be the friends and people I’ve met playing for both Arsenal & Ireland. Some of these people will be friends for life.
And disappointment? Playing for Arsenal brings a high standard and whenever we lose a game, there’s always disappointment. But on a personal note, one of the lowest times of my career would be when I ruptured my cruciate ligament. It’s a long-term injury and probably still affects me a little today even though my operation was over 10 years ago.
Who’s the best player you’ve played with? That would be Kelly Smith for Arsenal and Olivia O’Toole for Ireland. Not sure who is better but both are amazingly talented.
And against? Marta (Brazil) is the best player I’ve ever played against. She played for UMEA in the UEFA Cup Final.
What advice would you give to young women playing the game? I would say that they should always work hard. Fitness is a huge part of the game nowadays and work rate on the pitch is immense. There are huge opportunities for girls in football these days, whether it’s getting a professional contract or full scholarships and it’s worth putting in the hard work for.
And to young goalkeepers, in particular? I would say to keep working and keep focusing on the technical side of being a GK. It’s important to have a good GK coach and if you have one – listen to them.
And advice for those interested in going into coaching? I would say to try and look at as many coaching sessions as you can get to. Pick up techniques/drills/mannerisms that you like and implement them into your own sessions. Try to achieve your FA coaching badges and never think you know it all because you will always learn something from someone else.
What are your future ambitions within the game? I would like to play for another 2 seasons at the top at least. I don’t feel like I’ve reached my peak yet so I’m training hard and focusing hard. I’m currently doing my B License and hopefully will go on to get all of my GK badges so I can give something back at grassroots level. I would like to coach GK at international level and maybe manage someday.