Breakfast always begins at 10:00am. It follows on from a staff meeting, morning walks, late risers and players checking out local coffee shops. Then everyone comes together to start their day as a collective.
On the third day of camp in Australia, however, the hum of casual conversation in the hotel dining room was interrupted by the familiar sounds of Amhrán na bhFiann. A couple of the newer players to the Ireland Women’s National Team squad were using a YouTube video to brush up on learning the National Anthem. That was until their teammates joined in, acapella.
It wasn’t a chest-thumping rendition, but rather a moment of rare elegance as if a window had been opened and a bird’s song drifted in to distract people from their eggs to appreciate the beauty of something at once so simple yet so layered.
The National Anthem means something different to each player. For Niamh Fahey, it is a symbol of pride. It delivers flashbacks of home – Rosscahill, County Galway. It reminds her of family. It stirs a feeling inside her stomach that no doctor can medically explain. It alerts a sense of duty, a national calling in a way, that only those from the exclusive WNT sisterhood can truly understand.
It is why her feet felt a little lighter, her posture stood up a little taller and her heart beat a little faster when that anthem was played at a sold out Stadium Australia ahead of Ireland’s opening game of FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 against Australia. This was the moment that all of the other moments in her international career had been leading to. This was the final piece in the jigsaw. This was the world watching on as she sang her country’s song.
Linked between Louise Quinn and Megan Connolly, Fahey felt a connection with those next to her as well as the staff staring back at her, the fans bellowing out from their seats and the millions of Irish people around the world watching on. She was their representative on this world stage and she was not about to fluff her lines. The same for her teammates.
“You see the young players coming through now and they are really motivated and proud. You can see it in them that they want to represent Ireland. That says everything really about the mindset that they have and that is really encouraging to see,” said Fahey.
The reason why this felt so special was because it never seemed possible. It’s not that Fahey ever surrendered her optimism in exchange for more international caps (109 and counting). It’s that there were just too many hard-luck finishes, moral victories that left them short at the end of each qualifying campaign and cruel defeats across 15 years. The near-miss of making the 2009 UEFA European Championships hurt the most after losing to Iceland over a two-legged qualifying Play-Off.
“When we first had that chance to qualify for the EUROs, I thought this will happen again and we will get another opportunity. But as time ticks by that hope starts to dwindle and fade a little bit. You get some encouraging results but ultimately it doesn’t happen.
“Of course, there were times where I was thinking if this was ever going to happen in my lifetime as a player and luckily it has. But the biggest thing you can say is that it’s all about getting back up, keep staying in there and keep pressing on.
“I’ve been lucky enough to play under some great managers who were very proud of the Irish team and know what it means to everyone to represent their country. Any squad that I’ve been part of that pride has been instilled in me and I’ve felt part of it straight away.
“The journey that I’ve been on has now led us to the World Cup, so I think it’s important to pay dues and acknowledge the impact of every player, manager and staff member who have contributed along the way and helped to get us to where we are now. The pride of representing your country means so much more than anything else you can do.”
She may still be in the middle of it all but Fahey can appreciate the magnitude of playing at a World Cup. The Canadians are up next in Perth followed by the Nigerians in Brisbane. Then it’s a case of seeing if the itinerary leads to the Round of 16 or to the start of a long-haul return home. There is no point in looking too far ahead, stay in the moment and embrace it.
Fahey has always taken that approach with playing for Ireland. From her first appearance in an Algarve Cup game against Portugal in March 2007, she learned not to take it for granted. The elders in that dressing room taught her about the importance of saying the right thing, acting the right way and, crucially, sitting in the right seat on the team bus. It is something that she now, at 35 years of age, has the responsibility of passing on to her younger colleagues.
She knows how quickly it can disappear. Many talented players have come and gone through the years. Others, like Quinn, Diane Caldwell and Áine O’Gorman, have been able to survive alongside her in the trenches of Taldykorgan (Kazakhstan), Miskolc (Hungary) and Petrovac (Montenegro) to reach the hallowed ground of FIFA-branded sidewalks, plush air-conditioned stadiums and airport welcomes normally reserved for royalty. It has taken everything to get here.
A couple of years ago, Fahey was asked if it was time to consider calling it quits. To forgo her international days in order to squeeze out some more seasons at club level. It was a very short conversation.
“The whole reason I play is to represent Ireland so [quitting] was never going to happen,” explained Fahey.
“It’s been my passion, my drive to play for my country. I thought that if I left that behind, that sole focus [on club football] was not going to fulfil me. So it was something that was proposed but it was something that I was never going to entertain.”
Fahey has spent 9,331 minutes on the pitch as a senior Ireland player. It makes her the third-highest appearance holder behind O’Gorman and Emma Byrne. She has completed the full 90 minutes on 93 occasions. Oh, and she has the one goal that she laughs about, admiting that there was a ‘slight touch of the hand’ before it crossed the line in a 9-0 win away to Georgia in June 2022.
One goal in 109 appearances is not exactly prolific, but it could have been altogether different if her converted penalty in a shoot-out victory over Portugal on her third appearance counted. It doesn’t because a shoot-out is technically after full-time so she never added that goal to her record. Still, she can boast about the 32 clean sheets racked up in an Ireland jersey and that matters more considering she has largely played as a defender.
These are the type of things that she is often quizzed about in media interviews. FIFA TV were in the team hotel recently taking their turn and they discovered what so many of her teammates (past and present) have all come to know about her, that she remains as proud as ever to talk about being an Ireland player.