Thursday, January 27, 2022

Exclusive: Emma Byrne interview

The success of the England team at this summer’s World Cup caught the imagination of the nation. The exploits of the Lionesses attracted admirers and viewing figures in equal measure. But there hasn’t been much time to reflect on the tournament for players in the Women’s Superleague. Just 6 days after England’s third place playoff match with Germany in Edmonton, the domestic season was back underway. With a total of 5 players away in Canada, Arsenal looked lethargic in the opening thirty minutes of their return WSL match with Liverpool, which they eventually lost 3-1. However, inspired by the quality of the World Cup, a bumper 2,016 crowd turned out at Borehamwood for the match.

Gates across the WSL were four and five times larger compared to the pre World Cup period. Arsenal Ladies have a punishing schedule in July and August, with crunch games in a league that is tight and competitive (Arsenal sit in 2nd, 2 points behind leaders Chelsea), the Continental Cup also begins this month, adding fixtures to an already compressed calendar. In advance of Sunday’s crunch match against Notts County Ladies at Borehamwood, Tim Stillman spoke with Arsenal’s longest serving player Emma Byrne about the schedule, the professionalisation of Arsenal Ladies, her career aspirations after football, ‘im indoors and she also reveals the reasons behind a peculiar piece of “fashion” wear.

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Emma, you’ve recently faced stiff competition for your place from Siobhan Chamberlain. She was signed last year, but has recently joined Notts County on loan in search of game time. Siobhan is an established England international, was her presence the stiffest personal challenge of your Arsenal career?

I’ve been asked this question a lot and I think many forget that Rebecca Spencer was at the club for a long time, she was here for over 15 years in total. She’s the first choice goalkeeper for Birmingham now, so there have always been good goalkeepers at the club and Rebecca is one of the best goalkeepers in the league as well, along with Siobhan. When you play for Arsenal and you play at international level, there is always competition, so it’s not necessarily the biggest challenge I have ever had, because there has always been a big challenge.

It certainly helped me and my development, it pushed me harder in training, as any player will tell you when they’re facing strong competition. It was a good experience and now we’ve got Sari (van Veenendaal) who is the Dutch number 1 keeper, so the challenge is there again. You expect that at a top club, you expect for every position to be well covered and to have to compete with someone to play.

You’ve stood up to that challenge to this point and retained your place. However, Pedro has just signed Dutch international keeper Sari van Veenendaal. What do you know about Sari?

I watched her in the World Cup, I was commentating for Eurosport, so I saw all of Holland’s games. I had to do a lot of research on the Netherlands. She’s very good, she’s about my height, so she’s a good build for a keeper. She’s young, she hasn’t been number 1 for Holland for that long, so she’s still a developing goalkeeper. I’ve trained with her for just over 2 weeks now, she’s really positive, a really good goalkeeping partner to train with. I think she’s going to be a good goalie for the club and I think she’ll be good for me too. She’s nice and easy to get along with, so it’s going to be good and I’m looking forward to training with her.

The season has started again very quickly following the World Cup. Vicky Losada and Alex Scott, who both played in Canada, have picked up knocks, as have the likes of Eni Aluko and Fara Williams at their clubs. For the first 30 minutes of the Liverpool match, Arsenal looked very laboured too. How difficult has it been to hit the ground running again after such a long time apart as a squad?

It’s extremely hard, we’re kind of used to it with the summer league, but this year it seems to be even more difficult because it was such an intense World Cup for those players. Even those of us that weren’t in Canada were involved because we were constantly watching and hoping for them to do well and because England did well, there was great adrenaline and it definitely took a lot out of our players.

Obviously it was a huge high for the girls in Canada and now there’s a kind of comedown coming back and we haven’t trained together for six weeks. We didn’t play any build up matches and that really showed in the Liverpool game, especially the first half, it felt like a pre season game, it felt as though we needed more time to gel together again. I’m sure Pedro wanted more time with us just to get us back in the right frame of mind.

I thought it was really, really tough on us, I thought that there should have been a bit of a longer break, the England girls joined us again on the Friday and we played Liverpool on the Sunday and that’s not enough time to get back together as a team. England play completely different football to Arsenal, are a completely different team in another environment and I felt that we all needed a bit more time.

I think the whole league would have felt that. If we’d have won, obviously it wouldn’t have been as big a problem I suppose. Now we feel a lot more comfortable and we’re looking forward to playing again. I think perhaps even if we had begun again with a Continental Cup game, that would have been better for us all to come back to. But everybody was in the same position, so we can’t really blame that for the defeat to Liverpool.

On the flipside, 2,016 people turned out for that Liverpool game. With the momentum of the World Cup still very recent, the league has benefitted from that momentum. How did it feel suddenly walking out to that kind of crowd?

It was fantastic and we are trying to build that momentum and it does mean we put a little more pressure on ourselves because we want to perform to try and keep the crowds coming back. The way to do that is for us to keep performing well so that everyone wants to come back and see us and unfortunately, we didn’t play well that day. Liverpool played well, so that’s a positive from a women’s football perspective, but that’s the shared goal no matter what happens, we want to make women’s football more popular.

Ideally we want to be winning and doing that, but it was a real positive to see Borehamwood so full. So we have to just keep building on it, and success will breed popularity for us. We need to get back to winning ways and get back to picking up silverware to generate that publicity for Arsenal Ladies.

Arsenal played Birmingham City last Sunday and that must be a very surreal game for you because your husband (Marcus Bignot) is on the coaching staff there. Do you both have to be careful not to “talk shop” in the build up and the aftermath of games against one another? Is it awkward at all?

It’s not really awkward now, Marcus and I have been together for over ten years now, so we’re very used to it. We don’t talk about the game in the build up and he lives in Birmingham and I live in London at the moment, so that makes it a bit easier, for a couple of days before the game, we don’t see one another. But then I’d see him at the game, which is a bit weird, I just have to give him a wave!

Arsenal are expected to win those games and on Sunday we did, it wasn’t the best of games and Birmingham are in a very difficult position at the moment (they are second bottom and winless so far this season), so I did have to try and pick Marcus up, even though I’m elated with our win, so I do kind of have to have two faces after the game.

Over the last year there has been a lot of change in Arsenal’s squad, but certainly in the defensive setup ahead of you. Casey Stoney and Jemma Rose have both arrived in the last year, Ciara Grant has retired, Niamh Fahey, Steph Houghton and Gilly Flaherty have all left. I have observed that you have certainly become more vocal on the pitch in that time, is that deliberate because of the changes that have happened in front of you? Or is that just a natural consequence of your experience?

It’s come along naturally because of the change I think and I like to know my players, especially my defenders, and if we’re a unit then everyone else follows. Casey was at the club before so I knew her well anyway, so that was fine. I’ve never played with Jemma before so there was an adjustment there. Not least because she replaced Niamh Fahey and I play with Niamh for Irelend too, so we know each other very well. It’s just been a case of getting to know Jemma, her ways, what she likes and what she doesn’t.

I’ve also become more vocal because the league has changed and we have been conceding more goals and coming under more pressure than we were a few years ago, so I didn’t need to be as vocal. I’ve become more vocal because I want less to do! They’re used to me now as well and I think we’re settled and the results are showing that we’re a lot more comfortable with each other. Once you get to this level, the girls know their job and it’s just a case of getting them to do things a bit quicker maybe or giving them information to help them, rather than berating them.

There have been plenty of changes behind the scenes too. Arsenal Ladies now have a full time strength and conditioning coach and now they have a full time goalkeeping coach for the first ever time. How much difference has that made for you and for your self esteem as a professional?

It’s great for me to have a coach there, although Jason works with the men as well, so he does get pulled about the training ground so he’s not necessarily there every day, but we have him on a very regular basis which is something we’ve never had at the club before. I’ve been very lucky, I’ve had Alex Welsh, who used to be at the club before he went to Tottenham, I used to get private coaching sessions from Alex outside of training.

He is still my mentor and I speak to him very regularly, so he’s like my goalkeeping psychologist basically. I’m really lucky to have had that relationship which other goalkeepers haven’t had. He keeps me right mentally and Jason (Brown) is very good physically and Ivan (Mukandi, Strength and Conditioning coach) does that kind of maintenance piece, he helps me keep my knees right!

It’s been great for me personally and I feel very good physically, I’m always getting asked questions about when I’m thinking of retiring and I always say it will be when I feel like my body can’t take it anymore and last year it was tough on my knees, I needed injections and treatment, but this year I’ve not needed much work on them at all because of the strength and conditioning work we do. Ivan jokes with me that he’ll get another ten years out of me, but I doubt it somehow! But he can certainly prolong my career so I’ll listen to him.

Pedro likes a passing style and it’s very noticeable that Arsenal play out from the back at all times under his stewardship, yourself included. Goal kicks are often taken short for instance. Is that something you’ve had to work on specifically in training?

Pedro does like a passing, kind of Barcelona style, he wants goalkeepers to play out from the back all the time. In general it hasn’t changed much for me, and women’s goalkeepers have gotten better at distribution. At Arsenal, under Vic, Laura and Shelley, they wanted us to pass the ball, but they weren’t as insistent on it as Pedro is. So everyone in the team has to be able to play, whether it’s centre half, full back and goalkeepers definitely.

He’s looking for that type of goalkeeper and that’s part of why he’d have bought Sari in because she’s very good with her feet. We play possession games in training to help us improve. That’s the way the game is going, anyone that isn’t comfortable with the ball at their feet is going to find themselves out of the team, so it’s definitely something we’re working on and improving.

We’re getting better at it; you can hear people in the crowd sometimes urging us to go long and clear the ball, and I understand that but Pedro has got his approach and I respect that he wants to keep that and it’s going to work, it will take us time to get it absolutely perfect, but it will work and it will benefit the whole team.

You’re the club’s longest serving player in terms of unbroken service. (Rachel Yankey has had spells away from Arsenal in that time). As well as being a player, you have in the past held an admin position at the club and you have coached academy goalkeepers in the past too. Recently, you’ve also done some commentary for Eurosport, most notably for the recent World Cup. You’ve been involved in a few things away from the playing side, so where do you see your career going once you’ve retired?

I’m doing a degree in broadcasting and journalism so that’s something I’d probably like to look into. I want to become better at writing, at communicating and punditry, and the course has really helped me. I really enjoy doing commentary for Eurosport and I’m also doing my A License for coaching in November, so I think it’s all interlinked, gathering knowledge and communicating it.

I even just want to get more comfortable with these kind of things, just sitting here speaking with you, I feel I’m a lot better at it now. I’m not sure what’s going to happen though, it’s so difficult to predict with journalism and there’s talk of newspapers dying out and the media is changing, so who knows where it’s going to be in the future, but it’s certainly something I’m interested in.

I like coaching as well and I have been asked to get involved with that for the Irish national side. It’s very difficult to fully focus on anything else when you’re still playing, but it’s been beneficial to be able to do it while I’m still playing and that’s comforting. A lot of players start to panic when they come towards the final years of their career. I’ve been doing Coaching education for three years now and it’s something I really enjoy and think I’m good at, so it’s something I probably will end up doing.

Finally, I have to ask as a personal curiosity, I’ve noticed that you’ve started wearing a gumshield during games, what’s with that?!

I’m glad you’ve asked this, maybe you can tell everyone now because people keep asking me! I got my front four teeth knocked out when I was playing for Ireland in March, so it’s ongoing, I’m still getting treatment on it. I will probably keep it for as long as I’m playing now because it’s just not worth the pain.

It was a choice between spitting my teeth into my gloves or wearing the gumshield, so I chose the gumshield! I didn’t choose the colour or the type so I’m glad you asked, because you can tell everyone now.

I will! And who knows, maybe it will become iconic, like Petr Cech’s hat?

I very much doubt it. I’m certainly not trying to set a trend and it’s definitely not a sponsorship thing either!

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Many thanks to Emma (who is on twitter @emmsb) for taking the time out to speak with Arseblog News. Arsenal Ladies play Notts County Ladies this coming Sunday at 2pm at Borehamwood’s Meadow Park ground. Tickets are £6 adults and £3 concessions and can be purchased here https://sales.webticketmanager.com/alfc or alternatively, they can be bought at the turnstile on the day.

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Man Manny

Looking forward to a time we’ll have mixed teams: 6 guys and 5 ladies per time on the pitch. Would be fun!

Woman Womamny

How about 6 ladies and 5 guys?

Man Manny

“Woman Womanny”: is that meant to be the reverse of my name? Dear God!

Nion

you think you’re funny but you’re not.

Man Manny

Never wanted to create fun. We have mixed doubles in Tennis; why not soccer. Cheers

Paul

That escalated quickly!

Beagleboy

Ace interview! Good luck to Emma and her fellow Gunners!

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