Exclusive: Interview with Emma Byrne

Exclusive: Interview with Emma Byrne

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By their exalted standards, it’s been a slow start from the Arsenal Ladies this season. A shock 4-0 defeat to Liverpool at the Emirates represented their first league defeat in nearly two years, whilst only a last gasp Steph Houghton curler preserved a point away at Lincoln. The WSL promises to be a much more competitive affair this season, with several teams investing and making huge improvements.

One of the teams that has notably improved over the off season is Bristol Academy, who currently lead the WSL having won all of their first three league games. The acquisition of Spanish strikers Natalia and Laura del Rio have propelled them to another level. Bristol will be Arsenal’s opponents in this Sunday’s Women’s F.A. Cup Final at Doncaster Rovers’ Keepmoat Stadium. Arsenal have netted the trophy 11 times before whilst Bristol Academy are gunning for their first major honour.

Ahead of the game, Tim Stillman caught up with 7 time F.A. Cup winner and Arsenal goalkeeper Emma Byrne.

Emma, it’s fair to say it’s been a mixed start to the season for Arsenal. One of the undesired themes so far has been profligacy in front of goal- the Liverpool game could easily have finished 5-5. Is finishing something Shelley has focused on in training as a result?

Yes, we’ve been doing some work on finishing and it is something we’ve spoken about in training. It’s been really peculiar, but the good thing is that we’re creating chances, so we’re not too worried. We know from experience that we’ve got plenty of players who know how to score goals so we don’t think it’ll be a long term problem. We’ve been a bit unlucky too, we hit the post countless times against Liverpool.

As goalkeeper I have responsibility to bear there too because we’re not keeping clean sheets. So I have to hold up my end of the bargain. For the missed chances against Lincoln, for example, we’d have still won 1-0 if we’d kept a clean sheet. So that’s something else that we are working hard on as a team.

Speaking of the training ground, what do your training sessions look like as a goalkeeper? Do the Ladies have a specialist goalkeeping coach? Do you join in with the other girls or train separately?

At the moment, we’ve just brought in a new goalkeeping coach, but he’s not able to make every session just yet. Tony Roberts, who coaches the youth team goalkeepers for the men’s side, comes and takes us once a week. He’s incredibly enthusiastic and we’re very lucky, because not many men’s team coaches would be willing to give up their time to come and coach the ladies. We train in the evening don’t forget.

Tony lives for the game, he still fancies himself as a player too! (TS- Roberts has been on the bench for the U-21s twice this season, despite his 43 years). But I’m a qualified coach too, so I’ll sometimes take sessions with myself and Rebecca Spencer (Arsenal’s reserve goalie). We usually join in with the rest of the team for the last half an hour of training, when we’ll play small sided games.

Faye White and Julie Fleeting have gone, Jayne Ludlow plays less and Kelly Smith and Rachel Yankey have been injured this season. That’s made you and your international colleague Ciara Grant the most experienced players in the side. Have you both felt that responsibility in the games so far?

I think so, yes. I certainly feel a lot busier this year! As a goalkeeper it’s a strange position, because you kind of want to be busy, but at the same time you kind of don’t. I know I have to sharpen up and work harder in training now and I’ve been working hard on that because there’s a lot of extra responsibility on me and Ciara.

I know Ciara has said that the league is notably quicker and more physical this year, but she’s more than capable of handling that. I know it’s up to me to work harder. I know I have to be louder and more vocal in games too. The demands of this league are tougher than ever and I know I have to be sharper in games and more of a leader too. 

I know you do some goalkeeping coaching in the girls academy now. Is coaching where you see your long term future after you retire?

I think so, yes. It would be a natural progression. We used to have a goalkeeping coach at Arsenal called Alex Welch who was a huge inspiration to me. He’s currently mentoring me whilst I take my badges. He was always more than just a goalkeeping coach, so to have him mentor me is a huge honour. I’ve finished my B badge and I’m currently studying for my A badge. I’m also qualified as a coach educator now and like I said, I often take sessions with Rebecca Spencer and myself.

Being a coach is probably what I’d be most comfortable with but it would also depend on job offers. In the women’s game, the job opportunities for such a role aren’t as plentiful for a goalkeeping coach. Not all clubs have them and if they do, they tend to only have one. I think coaching is what I would like to do, but it would depend on whether there were opportunities out there. I might have to crossover into the men’s game! That would be a turn up.

How did you come to be a goalkeeper? At what stage did you think, “That’s what I want to do with my life”?

Nobody wants to be a goalkeeper, we all just get pushed into it somewhere down the line! Where I’m from in Ireland, we play a lot of Gaelic football so I grew up playing that. I had some friends that played soccer as we call it where I’m from. I used to really enjoy it and played out on pitch for most of my youth. One day in a game in Ireland, I was playing in midfield and our goalkeeper got injured.

Because of my background in Gaelic football, the girls thought I was the natural choice to take over in goal. I had a decent game and it just so happened that the Ireland manager was watching. When he began to enquire about me, I thought, “I should probably stick with this and see where it takes me.” Years later, here I still am!

You came to Arsenal via a circuitous route. You left Ireland to play in Denmark, before signing for Arsenal from Fortuna Hjorring at the age of 20. How did Arsenal spot you?

I was in the Ireland squad at that stage, but I was reserve to a keeper called Sue Shipp. She had to pull out of the squad with an injury for one game, so I played. It just so happened that Vic Akers was watching. Ciara Grant was at Arsenal at the time and her and I were really good friends, even then. Vic asked Ciara about me and ended up asking if I would be interested in a trial at Arsenal. I was playing in Denmark at the time and was open to move. So I flew over to London for a long weekend and had a trial. That was 14 years ago and they haven’t gotten rid of me yet! Ciara Grant was really instrumental in that and we have such a solid friendship. She’s probably my best friend in football.

Yourself, Rachel, Kelly Smith and Ciara Grant have played in many Cup Finals now. I was wondering if some of the younger players that haven’t, such as Jen Beattie, Jordan Nobbs and Dani Carter, have been asking you all a lot of questions in the build up to Sunday?

Not really, those girls are incredibly confident, probably more so than us. They have already played in Champions League games, some of them in the Olympics at Wembley Stadium, so I don’t think they really need any tutelage from us in the build up to the game. They’re all incredibly excited, but scarily confident.

The role of the more experienced girls is more likely to come in on the pitch, I think. Once the game starts, our role will be to calm things down. Particularly when we come under pressure, as we surely will against this Bristol side. That’s when we need to make our experience count and give the younger girls a bit of a steadying hand. But they’re all already so experienced and we tend to perform well under pressure. They’ll be alright I reckon!

This will be your 9th F.A. Cup Final. With the women’s game as competitive as ever and given last year’s exit to Chelsea at the semi final stage, would this be your most satisfying cup triumph if Arsenal succeed on Sunday?

Last year’s F.A. Cup exit really hurt us. We’re used to getting into the final and the semi final against Chelsea was something of a freakshow. We had so many chances and couldn’t score and Chelsea were very clinical, but it’s one of the oddest games I’ve ever played in. I wasn’t really 100% fit that day but had to play. Watching the final on TV was a really depressing experience for us, even though Becky Spencer was in goal for Birmingham and we were happy for her.

If we win it this year, it will certainly be amongst the most satisfying wins. But probably my most satisfying will always be the 2001 Final. We were playing Fulham, who were professional at the time, so we were huge underdogs that day. I was only 21 and we won 1-0 and I managed to save a penalty, so that’s difficult to beat in terms of personal satisfaction. That was where it all started for me, it day kickstarted my career and established me as Arsenal’s number 1.

But we are desperate to win this year. Last year did not feel right at all, not being there at the Final and not lifting the cup. 2 years is too long for us, at Arsenal, we see the F.A. Cup as our trophy. We miss it and we want it back!

Bristol are top of the WSL having won their first three games. Who are their players to watch out for?

They’ve got a lot of very good players and they’re really flying at the moment whereas we’ve not been playing so well. Corrine Yorston is an ex Arsenal player and she’s really dangerous from set pieces, we know all about her and we’ll be aware. They’ve bought two very gifted Spanish strikers and Laura del Rio is a real player. She’s very technical and has very good feet in tight spaces. She hits a very good free kick too.

They have a very strong centre half in Grace McCatty and Loren Dykes is very quick and tricky on the wing. They’re very strong all over the pitch. But we try not to focus too much on individuals. The bottom line is I think if we all do our jobs and play as well as we can, we should win. We feel very confident.

Finally, this will be the first Women’s Cup Final to be aired on terrestrial television for six years. With no men’s football on that day, it’s likely to attract a good audience. Does that bring an extra pressure to the girls, to give a good account of the women’s game?

I wouldn’t really call it a pressure. I just hope that we can really put on a good show and show how high the standard has become in the women’s game now. Whatever the result, I hope both teams can hold their heads high with regards to their performance. If we play to our best, I am confident we will win and we usually perform well in these circumstances.

But yes, there’s no doubt that we want to give a good account of where women’s football is at. We know we still have to change some minds out there and we hope that we can do that. But ultimately, we want our cup back.

Many thanks to Emma for being so generous with her time. Tickets for Sunday’s final at the Keepmoat Stadium are still available here http://www.keepmoatstadium.com/ priced at £10 for adults and £5 for concessions. You can also pay on the gate should you wish.

 Arsenal will be running coach travel to Doncaster and back from Caledonian Road station on Sunday morning, details here http://www.arsenal.com/match/report/1213/travel/ladies/fa-women-s-cup-final-travel.

Fan of Arsenal, Robert Pires and most everything to do with rum and whiskey. Smiter of those that ought to be smote.