Did your brothers and family in general have an influence on your interest in sport? I have two brothers. One older, one younger. Luke is the eldest, he’s 27. Kane is the youngest and he’s 23. The two of them were more GAA rather than football, but both of them did play football when they were younger. They definitely had an influence on me, though. My brothers and I were always incredibly competitive with one another. When you grow up in that environment, it is easy to end up on the right path.
You were also very successful when it came to GAA. What made you make the switch to football? I played GAA until 2017. I played my last game for Donegal, having played through the youth ranks at county level. I also played it at club level as well. It was May that year where the World University Games were coming up and that was something I really wanted to take part in. The women’s team just got a new manager in Colin Bell and one of the first thing he did was to watch the National League games in Ireland. He got to grips with a few of the local players. He came to one of my games and then said that he wanted to meet me and have a chat. He explained to me that he understood the players’ loyalty and commitment to GAA and admired that and the sport a lot.
What was Colin Bell expecting from those players he spoke to? He wanted to create the best team possible and needed 100% commitment from those who he selected. In college, I spent a lot of time jumping from football during the week then to play GAA for the county. Colin planted the seed but it was something where a decision was overdue. It was a decision I had been putting off for a long time and he made me aware of the potential I had. At the time, I thought it lay within GAA. When an accomplished manager says that, you need to listen.
Is there anything that you’ve been able to take from GAA into football? The two games are very similar in the sense that it is two teams, a ball and two goals. There is a plenty when it comes to off the ball movement that I can take from GAA, trying to predict what the defender is going to do and trying to use my runs to dictate where the ball goes. The commitment, pride and loyalty that comes from playing GAA is something I bring into football. That is one reason I stayed at Peamount United for so long, and you treat it like your own community. It is something I have brought with me to Köln and I feel that here too.
You studied at Maynooth – what was it like combing high-level education and sport? It was great for me. I got to experience the party side of things but the scholarship programme there was excellent. A few others and I ended up there and Maynooth really excelled when it came to GAA at College level. It was a great experience to have the chance to play my part in that. Peamount have an affiliation with the College as well, and players are actively encouraged to go and play for the club.
Going from Maynooth to Donegal isn’t easy – how did you cope with it? Maynooth is about half an hour outside Dublin. We were leaving Dublin at 4 in the afternoon to train at 9 in the evening with Donegal, having done a week of studying and sport. It was a challenge I enjoyed but it did start to take its toll. There were several of us having to get that John McGinley bus and it was the only way to get us together for the weekend. We were never staying over the night leading up to a game and that effected our performances. Ciara Grant (doctor) and Kate Keeney (analysis) were doing that travelling with me and it is nice to see that they have done well from that too. It was great that we won the Ulster title a few times to repay that commitment.
After GAA and Peamount came the move to Germany and Köln – how did that come about? The move came about quite similarly to committing to the one sport. Colin worked with me at international level and was well aware that I wanted to go on to play professional football once my studies had ended. Colin spoke to Willi Breuer who was head coach at the time and it took off from there. I got the call from Willi and after that phone call, it all started to go quite quickly.
You’re on own living over here – is that a first? It is not my first time away from home on my own, I was in student accommodation at Maynooth and at DCU, I stayed with an older woman in her 60s. She was probably out more often than I was during my Masters (laughs). That prepared me for the move a little, because many of my friends had moved on or had started working.
We’ve heard that a family member used to work here. Did they give you any advice on the move? My grandfather used to work in Frankfurt, so he was able to tell me many positive things about Germany and about Köln. The main talking point was Karneval and he tried to prepare me for that, but I do not think anyone can imagine what Karneval is like until you are here and experience it for yourself. He was excited that I was making the move and was aware of the culture in Köln, so he was very pleased. Every time I come home, he is asking me about my German. He can remember a lot and sometimes he is better than I am, but we will get there! It is something nice to look back on, that he made the move to Germany at a young age and I have followed his example. My favourite German phrase is, and I do not mean this to be cheesy, Spürbar Anders!
It hasn’t been easy with the lockdown, especially for someone in their first year outside their home country. How has it been for you? Thankfully, I have always been someone who has been able to cope well on my own. I have terrific friends and family around me, and they are there when I need the support. I think that coming to Köln, I was overcome with emotions, the excitement and getting settled in. The language was still the most difficult thing for me. I am someone who is very outgoing and, at the start, it was a bit of challenge because of the language. I know other people who have been on Erasmus and even German people who say that no one can get it perfect.
How has the team been when it comes to helping you get bedded in at FC? The team has been superb, helping me and pulling me aside to explain different bits and pieces in English. I cannot pick any one player out, because they have all been great when it comes to helping me bed in. Sascha came in during January and he put a major emphasis on me improving my German, making sure that I understood what he said – especially when it comes to tactics. Yannik, Michi and Sebastian have been great as well. Everyone was always checking in, especially Nicole Bender, Sascha and Mirella. It makes me even more appreciative and proud to play here. Bendi works so hard and she is FC through and through. People like that are so important to a club. All she wants to do is be successive and she the club grow and thrive. That creates a good environment and good people come from that as well.
But it’s something that you’ve been able to overcome. I have embraced the challenge of moving to a new country, with a new culture and language. It has been something that I have always wanted to do. It was never going to be easy to begin with, it has put me out of my comfort zone and it has helped develop me as both a player and a person. I feel at home here now and over the last six months, I have found my feet. The lockdown is probably the toughest period that many of us will go through in our lives. It was made more difficult by living away from home, but I got over that and Köln is such a good club. They helped me so much through that time.
Overcome in style, too. Four games, four goals and four times you’ve managed to open the scoring. What’s the secret this season? It is amazing what a little bit of confidence can do and I have been luckily enough to get my name on the scoresheet in the first few games. Looking at our first few results, we have played three of the more difficult teams in the league. The Bayern result stands out to me, it was a scrappy game and winning those games are sometimes more important and show how good you really are. It is clear how Sascha wants us to play and how I should play. After pre-season, he made it clear to me that I would play an important role and he knows that if I get the chance, I will score. The players are confident in me doing that as well.
What is it like to play alongside Mandy Islacker? When you play with someone like Mandy Islacker, people would look for her to score and that might take some of the pressure off me. Not that I do not feel the pressure, but she scores in her sleep. To have someone like that beside me is incredible. Her decision-making under pressure is next level. I try to take everything on board that she does and if I can achieve half of what she has, I will be happy. It is a little bit surreal at the same time. It is sometimes hard to believe that you are playing with these sorts of players, like Mandy, like Peggy and Marith. I am not sure I will ever play with someone who has a CV like Mandy; the fact that she has less than 30 caps is hard to understand. She works so hard to get into her positions, she demands a lot but gives a lot as well and makes everyone better. She is always willing to get the ball no matter how many players are around her. I can only watch and learn from her.
What a night for #effzeh and @amberbarrett09! Here is a look at the superb counter that saw us progress in the Pokal against Bayer Leverkusen! pic.twitter.com/JneNDJzdo2— 1. FC Cologne (@fckoeln_en) November 2, 2020
What a night for #effzeh and @amberbarrett09! Here is a look at the superb counter that saw us progress in the Pokal against Bayer Leverkusen! pic.twitter.com/JneNDJzdo2
There is a huge game coming up for Ireland – how much are you looking forward to that one? We have a good group and this time last year, we were in a good position. The game against Greece was around this time last season and it was another game where we dropped points late on when we did not need to. It was, looking back, two important points but we still had seven from nine and were looking good. After Christmas, we kept that run doing. The Ukraine game still leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, it was a freak goal and there is nothing we can do about that now. We have to look ahead and to be positive. We need to be looking towards making that next step and qualifying for a major tournament. I just hope we can get something from that Germany game and then I will be happy afterwards.
Aside from having played alongside some great names at club and country, who are your role models? Sarah Lawlor was one of the best players I ever played with. If I ended up with half the attributes that she had, then I would be happy. She had a horrific time with injuries and did not get nearly half the caps she should have, had she been fit. I will never forget in training when we were all having an awful session one day. Someone took an awful touch and the ball went up in the air. She caught it and politely told us to buck up our ideas. After that, the level went up massively and it was one of the best sessions I can remember from the college days. She had so much enthusiasm for the game that it almost turned into a disadvantage that she was always giving that couple percent more and paid for it with her injuries.
What are your hobbies outside of football? I read an awful lot. It is the main thing that I’ve been doing recently and thanks to lockdown, I’ve got through plenty of books. I have no real preference and read anything really. I also enjoy going for walks and that is something else I have had a lot of time for during lockdown. I always listen to a podcast when I do. Even away from football, I watch many games on TV as well. Mental health is something that also peaks my interest. I was part of the mental health society while I was in Maynooth for three years. I do a lot of reading on the subject and is perhaps something after football where a career could come up. It’s something that takes my mind off football and helped me to improve my relationship with football, so that I can focus on the next session or game if things haven’t gone to plan. That doesn’t mean to say that I don’t take things in; I like to note down different aspects to help keep me on track.
Do you have a favourite book? Away from reading about mental health, “To Kill A Mocking Bird” is my favourite book. I studied that for my GCSEs and having focused on that for so long, it’s something that means a lot to me. One of the quotes that I try to bring into different situations is “You never know anyone until you climb into their skin and walk around in it for a day”. I’ve built my ethos on that quote and as much as something or someone can be hugely frustrating, I always try to see it from their point of view and how they’re coming to terms in the moment.