9 hours ago
IT HASN’T EXACTLY been a straightforward journey to an Irish international career for Aoife Mannion.
The rollercoaster nature of it all continued yesterday as the former England underage international landed into Republic of Ireland camp in Marbella.
The new recruit arrived at 4.30pm and 15 minutes later, was out on the pitch training as Vera Pauw’s side ramp up their World Cup preparation.
Manchester United defender Mannion recently received Fifa international clearance, though she had an Irish passport before an English one thanks to her parents from Mayo and Galway.
The 27-year-old, currently on the comeback trail from a second cruciate ligament knee injury, represented England from U15 to U23 level and received two senior Lionesses call-ups, but did not feature for the reigning European Champions.
“I played with England youth teams through my younger years,” she explains. “I got a call-up at 12 and it was a bit of a natural progression. Probably for little over the last year, it’s been my intention and desire to play for Ireland.
“I started messaging a couple of the girls a year ago and then I did my cruciate. The surgery put a spanner in the works. Then I bumped into Vera last May and told her it was my intention to play for Ireland.
“In some ways it feels a long time coming but the clearance has just happened.”
— Aoife Mannion (@aoifemannion_) February 10, 2023
Family and fate were among the factors that led the Birmingham-born centre-half to this point.
One significant moment perhaps sped up the decision. It wasn’t particularly difficult when Mannion ultimately made the choice and settled on chasing the Irish opportunity, a serious injury and health scare to a club mate sending her on her way.
“That’s what I want to do, in my heart. We have a girl on the [Manchester United] team, Millie Turner, and one day she didn’t turn up for training and none of us knew why, it was all a bit hush hush. It turned out that she just randomly tore an artery in her neck and she didn’t know if she was going to play again. Her recovery process ended up being about six months and she literally couldn’t do anything, she was on a physical ban, she couldn’t train, she needed to let this artery heal.
Millie’s injury made me think, ‘What do I actually want? If I could only play for one more year, what do I want that to look like?’ Because one day you could wake up like Millie and all of a sudden, not be able to play.”
Her Dad is from outside Athenry, her mother hailing from near Kilmaine across the border. “Whoever is winning in the Gaelic determines what shirt I have on,” Mannion grins. “Usually it’s Mayo in the GAA and Galway in hurling. I watch the All-Irelands every year and one day, Mayo for Sam will come true!”
Her parents both moved to England for work and met there, joining an Irish community in Birmingham. Mannion played Gaelic football for Sean McDermotts and then Warwickshire, and did Irish dancing.
She spent summers in Ireland as a kid, that connection always central to her life.
Her uncle, Pat Kelly, played for Mayo — “my personal claim to fame” — and she has fond memories of playing football with him in the garden and wearing his old jerseys.
“All of the Irish traditions – GAA, Irish dancing and going to mass – has felt traditional.
“Obviously I’ve been born in England but apart from that all my family were Irish. When I got the call-up last week, I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve had from family members, saying how excited they are.
To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen my parents so proud of anything I’ve done. I’ve been around football for a while and involved in few things but if they died tomorrow they’d be happy. That’s how excited they are.”
Reeling in the years, Mannion sat beside Jack Grealish at St Peter’s Secondary School, Solihull, with England legend Karen Carney and rising star Olivia McLoughlin also attending the institution.
Grealish needs little introduction, of course, though Mannion remembers him as a classmate and talented “nemesis” on the Gaelic football field.
“I grew up the same age as Jack Grealish, sat next to him in my RE [Religious Education] class, he’s obviously a very good footballer, he played Gaelic played for the opposite team, I played for Sean McDermotts, that’s all you need to know!
“I must say we were a much better team, much more successful. But obviously, he’s gone on to do great things in the football world and he’s obviously very well respected.”
The pair often locked horns in midfield, Gaelic football massively influencing her and shaping her as a soccer player going forward. “I really enjoyed it, I preferred it to football to be honest, because of how much more physical it was. I just wasn’t able to make a profession out of the Gaelic.”
Grealish went one way, Mannion the other. The Manchester City winger entered the Ireland underage system, while his classmate went through the English ranks. What’s happened since is well-documented, the pair effectively criss-crossing.
Mannion did feature on the bench for the England senior team three times in 2019, but was never introduced. Was Ireland on her mind?
“Yes and no,” she concedes. “My family, my parents and my uncle Pat were very much in tune about what one cap for England would mean in terms of being locked in for the rest of your career.
“I had played for the England youth teams but that was a very natural process. It was always in the back of mind that this was something that could happen but really, it has only been in the last year that I made this leap of faith internally.”
It’s not the first time she’s made a big move, crossing the Birmingham divide from Aston Villa to the Blues early on, before the Manchester one from City to United in 2021. She’s a United fan, she freely admits; her first love is Birmingham City, “but anyone with any Irish connection is very much a Man United fan”.
Get Murray Kinsella’s exclusive analysis of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign this spring
Rest of the World versus England small-sided games in United training have prepared her for her latest significant switch, while she’s previously played with Irish internationals in Megan Campbell, Lucy Quinn, Harriet Scott and Megan Walsh.
But that didn’t stop the apprehension as she came into camp, somewhat nervous about how she’d be perceived.
I’ve been so excited to come and throw myself into it, but I’ve anticipated curiosity. My roommate is Amber Barrett. I got into the room last night, she says, ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ and then she’s like, ‘What you doing here? Why are you here? What’s your intention? Where has this come from?
“People want to know what the thinking is. I’m really happy to answer questions. Of course people are going to have some level of curiosity, because I’ve literally just turned up on a camp and I’ve never been involved before, so why wouldn’t people want to know?
“Everyone’s been really, really friendly and welcoming. I trained yesterday and I was just really, really excited – maybe a little bit overwhelmed – to be involved with a different team, different faces, to try and fit and be of value really.”
That’s the goal now: to prove herself in every which way, as she returns from a second cruciate ligament knee injury which she sustained last February. She backs herself to bounce back accordingly, a confident character with no shortage of belief in her ability.
— FAIreland ⚽️🇮🇪 (@FAIreland) February 13, 2023
She’s feeling fit, strong and ready to go if called upon for her Ireland debut against China PR next Tuesday.
“I’ve worked with a physio at club that has made me feel almost thankful to have it the second time because I feel so much better. Then it’s seeing how I can come into the fold and try and work as hard as I can to earn the respect from everyone really.
“I need to give everything in training, I need to be as open and approachable as I can be to fitting in and being liked by the girls, the team, the staff and Vera. That’s all I can do really. Then the decision is down to Vera to see if I am useful and valuable enough that she’ll ask me in again. But in the first instance it’s just that childlike excitement to get involved in training and get stuck in.”
Whether she’ll be using her Irish passport on the plane to Australia this summer remains to be seen, but Mannion will play some part in the story.
It’s one she’s grateful to be involved in, having watched the historic play-off win over Scotland on her iPad from the couch in October.
The hope is more centre-stage from here on out.
“It’s clear this is a special group,” Mannion concludes. “What Vera and the players have built and achieve over the past two years is nothing short of historic.
“There’s a sense of togetherness here. Vera had her opening meeting yesterday, setting out the intentions for the year and it’s quite clear that she wants to push on. For me to come in from the outside, and seeing it, feels quite special.
“The squad has been really competitive and I’ve made my intention quite clear to Vera that I wanted to play for Ireland for a while. Regardless of what happens, whether I get picked, it is my intention to be available in any capacity Vera decides that to be.”