Megan Campbell interview: Ballad of an indomitable spirit
The left foot of Megan Campbell has cast its spell over some golden moments this year, though the Irish international has had to endure as much as she’s been able to enjoy in her career to date. The Drogheda-born defender emerged from multiple setbacks to star in May’s FA Cup final win for Manchester City, and as she prepares to begin the road to returning once more, a song of staunch family pride and fortitude will be beating with her.
As this interview with Megan took place, it was a conversation to cover a career already full of experience and achievement – from College Cup glory to FA Cup bliss. It was also to highlight and celebrate the equally precious non-footballing grooves to the endeavours of a 24-year-old quite simply living out a dream, backed always by an unconditionally proud family with some famously tuneful ties.
The one-time Florida State Seminoles star was speaking in the lead-up to helping Man City into the last 16 of the UEFA Women’s Champions League, as they dispatched of Austria’s St. Pölten. She would then be part of the side that earned an emphatic 5-0 first-leg win in Lillestrøm to put more than a foot in the quarter-final.
As she competed in the return leg on November 16th, it was another reminder of how sharply and harrowingly fortunes can shift, as she suffered an ACL rupture in her right knee. In recent weeks, Megan and her family have also had the loss of her grandfather, Eamonn Campbell, a much-loved and legendary figure within Irish music, performing and producing across six decades and best known for his part in The Dubliners.
While the initial feeling was to perhaps not go ahead with putting this interview out, it soon became clear that the meaning connected to so much of it was still just as strong, if not much more so now. So this was our delve into some of the entertainers and escapades, the setbacks, supporters and singers on her journey to date, and with Megan, there’s no better place to begin than with the ones most treasured to her.
“I’ve got a really big family,” the PFA Ireland International Women’s Player of the Year finalist began. “Dad’s got a few brothers and sisters, and then Mum’s got two brothers and they’ve all got kids, so it’s a pretty big family, as most Irish families are!”
“I’m really close with them all and I think the support that I’ve got off my mum and dad and sisters alone growing up was something that I’ve definitely never forgot. I’ll continue to give back to them as much as I can because I know my sisters gave up a lot when Dad was taking me from work to training in Dublin.
“He’d finish at 5, collect me and we wouldn’t come back until 11 o’clock at night; he wouldn’t have even had his tea and he’s taking his time away to take me to Dublin. Obviously then my mum missed out on being around my dad, but she would come to the games as much as she could.
“My sisters obviously lost out on their time with Dad but I think they were understanding of the fact that I had that goal and they supported me. It’s nice to be able to give back to them today because I know for a fact I wouldn’t be where I am without them.”
Winning the first of her 39 Ireland caps to date against Switzerland at 18, Megan could always count on the support of her late grandfather, Eamonn, and he could often be found in the crowd beaming at the sight of his granddaughter running out for the Girls in Green in Dublin. In recent years, he would perform with the fellow remaining members of Irish folk band The Dubliners, as they went under the name of The Dublin Legends, and his personable character, humour, audience connection and of course, his famous talent on the guitar, were legendary in Irish musical circles.
“It’s good to listen to music, especially when it’s from one of your own as well.”
As a line-up, The Dubliners went through various changes through the decades, but they enjoyed a reputation in country after country, and through generations, and Eamonn was the one who had the idea to work with The Pogues, as they topped the Irish charts again and hit the UK’s top 10 with ‘The Irish Rover’ in 1987. Just like Megan, he hailed from Drogheda, County Louth, and she recalls how he helped make sure music was always around somewhere in their family get-togethers.
“Grandad’s been a big part of my life in terms of football as well and he’s always supported me on that side of things. I think he’s really proud of where I’ve come from, as I am of him.
“Growing up, at Christmas time and at big parties, he used to bring his guitar and we’d have a sing-song and stuff like that. It’s good to listen to music, especially when it’s from one of your own as well.
“When The Dubliners would have concerts at Christmas time I’d go every year and support them and I’m proud to see where he’s come from as well and where he continues to go, even through his sickness.”
Growing up, Eamonn had his heart set on playing the accordion – that was until he heard Elvis ‘That’s All Right’ on the radio one Saturday night! He was hooked on the guitar and got his first at 11, telling not so long ago how retirement would not be for him, as ‘I can’t imagine the day I don’t have a guitar in my hand.’
While he also loved blues, he proudly proclaimed with a smile in one of his last interviews, ‘I’m a rock and roller’ – one area where he and Megan admittedly might have differed in preference, as she explains!
“I listen to a bit of everything if I’m honest, aside from rock! At the minute there’s a new Irish band out called Picture This who I’m really fond of.
“Me and Jen Beattie at City love that type of music and we’re always buzzing off each other when we come in on a Friday and Spotify playlists come up, New Music Friday. We’re always on top of that, but yeah, I listen to that, or r&b or pretty much everything.”
Before she came to make her mark with Ireland’s senior team, Megan had gone all the way to the FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup final in Trinidad and Tobago in 2010, scoring in a group win over Ghana. To qualify for that tournament, Noel King’s team finished runners-up in the UEFA Women’s Under-17 Championship, with Megan again demonstrating the sparkling touch as she struck a winner against Sweden in Simferopol, Ukraine, and then most memorably, from way out to beat Germany in Nyon, Switzerland in the semi-final.
Away from helping orchestrate on the pitch, she did try her hand at violin once upon a time. Despite how valued music has been in her life, though, football has been more than enough of a stage for her, with this year’s FA Women’s Cup final at Wembley providing perfect evidence of the creative threat she can offer.
As Nick Cushing’s Man City swept Birmingham aside 4-1 in front of a record crowd (35,271) at the famous stadium, Megan provided decisive deliveries for Lucy Bronze and Carli Lloyd. Despite the top-drawer precision she offers on a set-piece or cross in any given game, it actually isn’t an area Megan ever really pinpointed for special attention.
“To be honest, I don’t work on it; it’s just something that I’m fortunate to have. I’m lucky in the sense that I’ve got a lot of people behind me who believe in me when I’m doing (set-pieces) and so that alone is what helps me.
“If I’m confident and I’m feeling like I’m good then I think they come off a lot more; obviously in the FA Cup final it worked really well for us. In training, we do work on it with set-pieces, but I don’t work on it separately.
“Coming back from injury and having the confidence of Nick and the staff to be put on all the set-pieces, it puts a lot of confidence in me. Then you’ve got people like Steph (Houghton) and Beatts (Jenny Beattie) in the box who’ll put their head on anything.”
There is of course another weapon in the armoury that Megan has captured some attention for, with a long throw-in that so often causes chaos in opposing penalty areas when she fires them in low and at pace. Although it is every bit a part of the game, it’s the kind of attribute that almost gets looked upon as a party trick or gimmick for the players who possess it, with the other skills in their locker potentially becoming a bit of a side note!
For Megan, who said she first discovered what she could do with it when playing Under-12s with boys, does it ever get tiresome being asked about it?
“No, at the end of the day it’s a fact that I do have a long throw-in and it’s abnormally long compared to the average person! Maybe it’s something that makes me stand out as a player.
“I enjoy the fact that people are interested in that I can use my left foot as well as throwing the ball in, but it’s part of me and it’s got me to where I am today. I’m not going to be annoyed if someone asks me a question about it, because it’s made me who I am and made me stand out from other players.”
One team who certainly appreciated that extra string to Megan’s bow were her group at Florida State University, where she would hold her own, to say the least. Playing for one of the most noted coaches in women’s college soccer, in Mark Krikorian, Megan arrived at FSU with junior eligibility and would become an extremely coveted prospect as she etched her name in the Seminoles’ record books.
In the Garnet and Gold, she would combine her defensive performances with a remarkable 31 assists in a three-season collegiate career that saw FSU reach the College Cup (final four of the NCAA Tournament) every year. That assist tally, which included a school record of 12 as the crucial games came around in the post-season, put her joint-second in program history alongside teammate and current Seattle Reign defender Carson Pickett, and she had four goals to sprinkle in amongst her 60 games, too.
Back home, she had built her game with the likes of Drogheda United, St. Francis and Raheny United, though her move to Tallahassee was a step into something different altogether, as she pitted herself against many of America’s best up-and-coming players. She would form some lasting bonds with her Seminoles squad, but as she arrived, she recalls the scene being a little reminiscent of a certain photo she posted from the Man City training ground last year!
“I think when I went in the June I had to do summer school, so there wasn’t a lot of the girls there. It was me and a bunch of the freshmen, like Nickolette Driesse, who transferred to Penn State in the end.
“I think her and Marlo (Sweatman), and Yulie (Lopez), I think it was the four of us who were really close because we were there over the summer training and trying to get our fitness up. When it came to the season and everyone came back, and fitness testing was over, over there you play two games a week, so it moves quite fast.
“I think all the girls were quite open and very welcoming, so it was easy for me to fit in.”
In amongst those aforementioned three College Cup appearances, 2014 was the golden year for Megan and her team, as they sank Virginia 1-0 in Boca Raton to earn FSU its first national title in program history. Megan’s 12 assists that season made her the first from Florida State to reach double-figures in back-to-back seasons, and as she served up four in the NCAA Tournament, she was part of a backline that ended their season with seven consecutive shutouts en route to glory.
As Jamia Fields cut in from the right to step around defenders and plant an unforgettable left-footer into the bottom corner in the Championship game, Megan was right in the middle of the team celebration, with an ecstatic smile in the Florida sun and arms around a group she had grown to love. The picture of her beside the trophy, draped in the Irish flag, remains one of her most prized.
It wasn’t just the high points of her college years that were crucial, with an overtime loss to UCLA in the 2013 Championship decider and a 2015 Final Four defeat to Duke especially stinging experiences. Together with facing injury and being separated from those she cares most about, it was a spell in her life that she feels made her that bit tougher.
“Winning trophies is something I’ve always wanted to do and to do that and succeed with that team over there was just brilliant.”
Megan details that as she thinks back to the highly-talented Seminoles setup she was part of with players like Portland Thorns and Iceland midfielder Dagný Brynjarsdóttir, Orlando Pride forward Jamia Fields, and so many others.
“When I arrived I was still quite young and it was a big move for me to move away from my family. For that, it helped me grow as a person and mature more than anything, especially at the start.
“In my first year I was just really enjoying it, with like you say, Dagný, Jamia, Michaela (Hahn) and all the girls around me to help me fit in. I enjoyed the way Mark’s style of play was, I got used to loads of different cultures, which helped me on and off the pitch as well.
“Unfortunately, over there I did break my foot, so I had to have surgery and I think that’s where my first major injury came from. To be able to go through that over there and be far away from family and to be able to mentally come back from that, when I got injured here with City (in 2016) it wasn’t as hard at the start, because I knew my family were closer.
“I think through injuries I’ve grown a lot as a person; mentally you get a lot tougher and you’ve no choice but to if you want to come back and compete at a high level. I was just trying to do that, but overall, I really enjoyed my time at Florida State.
“Winning trophies is something I’ve always wanted to do and to do that and succeed with that team over there was just brilliant.”
As well as majoring in Social Science at FSU, Megan also has a diploma from IT (Institute of Technology) Carlow and coaching qualifications to her name as well, beginning to make herself just as multi-faceted off the pitch as she is on it. While balancing academic and athletic life in Florida, she did get to enjoy some more relaxed moments along the way, and when it came to team bonding, of course music had a cameo role.
“I think they listen to a lot of country over there, Americans love a bit of country, so I think I started to get used to that being played, but like here, they play a bit of everything and just enjoy music before games. Outside of playing and studying, we were going to the beaches.
“I think it’s called the Keys, and there’s some other beaches down south, and there’s a lake where you can go canoeing and paddle boarding. If we could have a weekend free, which was very rarely, we got together as a group or sometimes just twos and threes, and went away.
“Sometimes it was just for coffee or food to take your mind off the academic side and football.”
Even when she was thousands of miles away, that sense of flying the Irish flag in all Megan did was always very much present. On the pitch, the Girls in Green are a closely-connected unit, with ability levels to give good reason to believe that their first tournament really isn’t that far away.
The likes of Fiona O’Sullivan, Stephanie Roche and Denise O’Sullivan have mentioned on here the role music can have when they unwind away from football with a céilí or two! Although Colin Bell’s team may have lost their chief tin whistle talent since Julie-Ann Russell took up a job in Australia, the rhythm carries on, and Megan plays her part.
“In terms of DJing and music I like to think I’m not too bad at it! A lot of the time I’ll put the music on the speakers or we’ll make a playlist and everyone’ll put a song in, so they’ll have their own song and everyone’s ready for the game.
“That’s similar to what we do here at City with the matchday playlist. Music’s always good, especially when you want to tune out if you don’t want to listen to your head all messed up from training or matches, or if you’re trying to focus or chill.
“Music’s always a good thing and it’s definitely been a big part of my life.”
What earned Megan’s route to America and to becoming a professional athlete was football, though she also played basketball and Gaelic football, as well as competing in track and field growing up. With horse-riding also added into the equation, by her mid-teens her parents said it was time to narrow it down to one!
Music has been a symbol of so many different corners of her life, including the support and sacrifice that came from her dad on those journeys from Drogheda down to Dublin. She explains how some classic rock used to capture that, but thinking back to the first CD she had, it was a time when boybands dominated!
“Yeah, Backstreet Boys or something like that! Them or Westlife, definitely.
“To be fair, when I was going to training with Dad, he’d put The Eagles on in the car on the way up, so I was a big fan of The Eagles for a while.”
Dublin’s Vicar Street is a venue Megan always associates with her granddad Eamonn, as she got to see her biggest inspiration in his element, doing what he loved most. With her Man City teammates, she has seen Beyonce perform live, along with the Irish duo Picture This more recently.
As this isn’t your conventional football interview (maybe you already realised…), Megan becomes the artist here, purely for conversation purposes. So if she was to cover a track, which teammates from her career would she pick to rope into this one?!
“From City, I think I’d do a cover of a song with Jennifer Beattie, because she’s talented on guitar. Nikita (Parris) and Keira (Walsh) know the lyrics to every song so they’ll have to be in it to help me out.
“I think I’d need background dancers, so Izzy (Christiansen), Jill (Scott) and Demi (Stokes) to get the crowd going. No idea what song we would choose.”
Arriving in Manchester in February 2016 to see how she would fit in with the City setup, Megan received the news soon after that the club wanted her to join. Having gone to Abu Dhabi with the team for pre-season, she picked up an ankle injury with Ireland and tore a quad during her rehab.
A more prolonged ankle problem kept her sidelined for much of her first year in England, though faith was invested in her in the form of a contract extension, and she proved that an extremely wise choice with her impact this year. While Megan never would have chosen to be embarking upon the comeback trail again, one thing guaranteed is that she won’t be allowed to feel alone on the way.
Her City teammates know all about her ability by now, her attacking threat and defensive wherewithal, but much more significantly, they know about who she is. She’ll be on the road to recovery amongst a place that’s become another home for her, as she describes when painting the picture of life outside of training and playing.
“I think a big thing for us as a team is we’ll go for coffees, so we’ll always go to Costa or an independent coffee shop and chill out and chat about how the day’s gone or what everyone’s up to for that weekend etc. I think it’s a good get-together for the team, but aside from that, for myself I just chill at home, because you don’t get a lot of time away from the pitch.
“So just watch a TV series or Netflix, or if I’m going into town, the Northern Quarter’s really nice. There’s a lot of nice restaurants around Manchester and it’s becoming a lot more modernised so it’s really good for us to experience different cultures of food.”
This has been a celebration of a young career that has already taken Megan over hurdles and up to deliriously happy high points, with masses of characters to help light the way. We get ready to wrap up with a question that has been put to male and female players on here from around the world in the last few years.
Avoiding asking for the outright best players (because that can always bruise a few egos!), we are looking for any four of the many Megan has played with in her career so far that she would want with her in a 5-a-side game. When put on the spot, she tried her best to take some from everywhere.
“In goal, I’d say Emma Byrne in her prime was unbelievable. This is tricky; I’ve played with a lot of players!
“If I’m picking one from everywhere I think I’d pick Dagný (Brynjarsdóttir) (midfield) from Florida State. Steph (Houghton) from here, definitely – defensively she’s solid and she’ll always give you everything, especially in 5-a-side!
“Who else? I’ll put my mate Nikita Parris (forward) in!”
Megan was in the Ireland squad that fought for better standards this year, with nine hours of talks with the FAI leading them to a groundbreaking agreement that at least begins the levelling of the playing field for the women’s setup. For the highs and the hurt, it’s been some year for Megan on a personal level, even if its heartbreaking final months make it hard to appreciate the bigger picture just yet.
She recently expressed her thanks for the support she has received from the Man City fans and the wider community in the women’s game, and they will be together in willing her through each phase from here. Her granddad Eamonn said that The Dubliners’ shows were that opportunity for people to enjoy themselves and forget their troubles for a couple of hours, and the fans travelled from far and wide to sing with them, never letting them down when they shouted ‘all together’ or ‘let’s hear it now’ as a chorus called.
Surely then there could be no greater tribute to him than continuing to pursue what she loves and what he watched her do with so much pride in the Irish colours, no matter the hurdles thrown in her path. The legacy of a greatly-loved Drogheda son lives on in the love of friends, family and the many impacted upon by his talent, and just maybe the words of a song he strummed and sang with The Dubliners on their 40th anniversary show will help lift Megan that bit more over these months to come – ‘don’t give up ‘til it’s over, don’t quit if you can..’