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Ireland Star Amber Barrett On Smashing Gender Stereotypes And Getting The Country Behind The WNT

Ireland Star Amber Barrett On Smashing Gender Stereotypes And Getting The Country Behind The WNT

As you're about to find out, Amber Barett isn't wedded to clichés.

Therefore, at no point in her career did she have two roads neatly diverge in a yellow wood.

Instead, she travelled both roads as far as she could, as talented Irish sportspeople with fidelities to home and ambition often do.

She ultimately had to hop over the ditch and choose one of them, and in doing so, she tore away a few home roots to choose soccer. Within a year she was a senior international while dazzling for Peamount United, and a few months after that she was starting in what would become a famous night in Irish football, in a World Cup qualifier before 13,000 fans away to the European champions.

Immediate justification then, for the difficult sloughing off of commitments to Donegal's Gaelic football panel. Barrett had been an integral member of the senior squad since she was 15, having hoarded jerseys for various underage squads for the preceding five years. Having combined both sports for years the dual commitment eventually became too much.

"You can’t play both at the level I wanted to play them at. It’s physically impossible", Barrett tells Balls across a table at FAI HQ in Abbottstown. "I hit a wall last year. I was struck down by Glandular Fever, but everything had taken its toll. It hammered me; I missed four weeks of college. That was my body’s way of telling me to make a decision".

Not that it was a straightforward decision.

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Years playing Gaelic football had seen ties of friendship pulled taut. Barrett lost her grandfather in the lead-up to a championship tie against Galway, and having missed most of the training ahead of the game, returned to score a brace of penalties, celebrating by pointing to the sky. She still speaks emotionally of that day and that week, and of the support from teammates and coaches Sean O’Kane and Michael Naughton.

"You look back on great days like that, and at the time I don’t think I could have got better support from the Gaelic community there. You consider these things when you’re deciding to leave. ‘Remember what they did for you'... But it was a decision that I had to make".

The memory of her late grandfather helped her to make that decision. "My Grandad, he was my biggest fan, and he always said that I had to do something that made me happy. He didn’t care if I was a unicyclist as long as I was happy".

She is certainly happy now, but even meteoric rises are not without their bumps and wobbles. As soon as Barrett declared her intention to focus on soccer, Colin Bell anointed her Irish captain for the World University Games in Taiwan. Ireland finished bottom of a three-team group featuring Mexico and Canada without scoring a goal, and Barrett speaks frankly about her own performance.

There was a bit of pressure on me, and Colin had put a lot of his trust in me. I don’t think I repaid that trust.

I underperformed.

Now, I’ve gradually improved in every camp I’ve come into, and now it’s time for me to become a regular goalscorer for the senior squad.

That’s the only way I can repay his belief.

Barrett is an integral member of the senior squad now. She made her debut off the bench against Northern Ireland in the first game of the present series of World Cup qualifiers, and was in the starting XI for the 0-0 draw away to European champions, Holland. That was a remarkable result - Holland's list of achievements was almost as long as the Irish injury list.

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The Dutch are the European champions and had won their last eleven games, boasting a strikeforce in which the reigning world player of the year dovetails with a 21-year-old striker with 49 international goals to her name already; Ireland were without Megan Campbell, Stephanie Roche, Aine O'Gorman, Claire Walsh, Ruesha Littlejohn, and Claire O'Riordan.

Nonetheless, Ireland clung on for a crucial point that leaves them in an encouraging position to qualify for a major tournament for the first time. They have seven points from nine and are tied for top of the group   with the Dutch.

Both Ireland and Holland have a game in hand, however, and both face each other in Tallaght on April 10th. Four days prior to that, Ireland have an equally important clash with Slovakia. Points are precious: only the group winners are guaranteed to qualify, with just four of the seven runners-up earning a spot in the playoffs.

Barrett partly ascribes Ireland's strong start to the work done by the level of detail and rigour in Colin Bell's work.

Without the work Colin and Gary [Seery, video analyst] and the rest have done behind the scenes, I don’t think we would have got the result against the Netherlands. Everything is down to a tee. We are lucky to have these men and these coaches on board.

After the Netherlands game, I met up with Colin and we went over the first-half. At one point he asked, ‘How do you think you did there?’ I said, ‘I thought I did well’, and he said, ‘You did do well’.

It’s nice to have that amount of feedback. I could be thinking that I had a terrible game and hear nothing from the manager, so he is very hands-on in that way.

I’ve learned a ridiculous amount with him.

Such a start to qualifying under Bell has increased the scope of media attention on the Irish team. Barrett herself has been unafraid of giving interviews, and I read a snippet from a recent interview with Mary Hannigan of The Irish Times

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It struck me in the Netherlands how the majority of the crowd was male – usually when you come to our games at home it’s mainly females. They weren’t coming to see ‘the women’, they were coming to see the Netherlands. That’s something we need to instill in Ireland. We want to get as much support as we can, regardless of gender.

"That sounds very good when you read it back, doesn’t it!", laughs Barrett in response. So, how can it be instilled here?

After the game, I remember talking to two men from the Netherlands, and they said that the Netherlands bring us such joy, and that ‘We don’t go to see the women, we come to see the Netherlands’. It doesn’t matter about gender. For them, the men weren’t performing, so they thought, why shouldn’t we get behind our women’s team?

They are the best team in Europe.

That struck me. When you go to women’s games, a lot of the crowd are girls from younger teams they bring in to fill the crowd. That’s absolutely fantastic, but you should be able to do more. It’s not about getting more girls to the game; it’s about getting more people to the game.

The Netherlands have done that, and that’s how they had 13,000 people at their game against us.

I think that’s down to us, as players. That’s our responsibility. If we are going out and getting beaten 10-0, I wouldn’t want to watch it. We have a responsibility, now we’re in the public eye. I think we’ve been doing that well so far.

We’re getting media attention all the time now, and that’s tremendous for us. From a media point of view, there’s not much more that can be done.

It’s us.

We have to get results. The team wants to get results, and we are working for it.

While Barrett sees it as the squad's responsibility to attract crowds, she agrees on the importance that female sportspeople are promoted in the media. Conversation on this topic has two strands. The first relates to on-field matters.

It’s important because you need role models. You need to have both. Role models for young girls and young boys. You want a young boy to turn around say their favourite player is Katie McCabe. Or Denise O’Sullivan, because they’ve seen they are as good as any of the men’s players.  We compare men’s and women’s football but they are so totally different physically, that we can’t compare them.

It’s important to establish role models, and you’re doing it for the male players so why not do it for the female players?

But we have to back it up. It’s important for the growth of a sport to have females to look up to. When I grew up, a lot of my idols were male footballers. But my ultimate, favourite sportsperson was Serena Williams, because she is absolutely ridiculous.

I want to have that, but I also want you to have Serena Williams as an idol. Not because she is a female, but because of what she has done as a sportsperson.

At a time of increased calls for women to have a greater role in the Irish sporting conversation and in the shadow of the debate around 'toxic masculinity' within sporting culture, Barrett is convinced that the Irish women's football team can change gender stereotypes.

We need to establish more female people in the public eye. There is still this air of machoness, and we need to stamp that out. There shouldn’t be an air of entitlement based on gender.
The women’s national team, putting ourselves in a public eye, will work against that. The responsibility is on us to put ourselves out there and change that stereotype.

Of course [changing stereotypes can change attitudes elsewhere].

The worst thing about stereotypes is that people mould to them because they are expected to.

I’d be one not to rebel against them, but I’m not trying to establish my identity by doing something.

Further to that point, Barrett isn't just a footballer: she is currently past the half-way point of her teaching Masters at DCU. She has been parachuted into the cut and thrust of teaching life in Coolock. "I absolutely love it. But the biggest thing I learned was on my first day: Bleedin’ massive means gorgeous!"

Barrett teaches English and History, and also teaches Public Speaking to Transition Year students.

You may not be surprised by that last fact.

Gavin Cooney
Article written by
Changed the spelling of his name upon pressure from Michael Owen.