Football focus paying dividends: Ex-Donegal star Barrett is Ireland's new hero, but it's been a steep learning curve
Amber Barrett is a breath of fresh air. When we meet, her face is full of smiles and bursting with enthusiasm - just as it was when she celebrated wildly after scoring against Slovakia in Tallaght Stadium last weekend.
Not only was it a first international goal for Barrett, it sealed victory for the Republic of Ireland women's team in a crucial World Cup qualifier. But in ways the goal signified so much more than that: it was the moment the young Donegal woman emerged as a national sports star. After the game she was the centre of attention but she took it in her stride.
Barrett is only 22 but she speaks with a maturity beyond her years. The former Gaelic footballer is comfortable discussing any topic and is happy to share an opinion on things most young stars would shy away from. And it is she who first broaches the subject of her fitness and physique.
"Up until Peamount this year I hadn't done a pre-season with a team in four years," she says. "I was doing the soccer season from September to January. Donegal had started their pre-season in October and then the league started in February. I was going all the way through the summer playing Gaelic and then Peamount would start again.
"That didn't help me; I was always playing at a level but I could never get up past it because I was missing the baseline fitness. Even now having done a pre-season with Peamount I've noticed a huge difference coming in for the first couple of games fitness-wise.
"I'm still in a position that I know I need to be a lot fitter for what I need to do, it's something I need to work very, very hard on but in comparison to other years at the start of the league I'm miles ahead. Even the performance against Slovakia shows me that because I've done that bit of extra work, I've been given an opportunity.
"This time last year I wouldn't have scored against Slovakia. I don't doubt that. I wouldn't have had it in me. To be honest there is weight to lose - I need to tone up, and when you look at the likes of Netherlands and the shape that they are in I'm miles behind them. That's not disrespectful to me, that's just the fact of the matter. I'm competing against them so I need to get there.
"It's a very delicate situation to say it to a girl that you might need to lose a few pounds because they might think you are calling them fat. That's not it. If you stood me beside Lieke Martens we are miles apart yet we are playing a similar position. Even Leanne Kiernan, there is a big difference between me and Leanne.
"I'll never be Leanne's size but at the same time I need to make sure that I'm not carrying extra baggage on my back that will inhibit me playing against the best that I can. Personally I believe that a 100 per cent fit Amber Barrett can be very, very good. I believe that, I just need to knuckle down now."
Barrett is living in digs in Dublin and doing a masters in education in DCU. Prior to that she did her undergraduate degree in NUI Maynooth. Like most young athletes she knows that juggling college with elite sport can be challenging. Lessons have to be learned and sacrifices made.
"I have made progress, but still have ground to make up. When I was studying in Maynooth, a bit of me slipped into a social scene, not in a bad way but there were nights out. I know now that if you want to get to the level where I want to be at the nights out will be irregular but I'm ok with that, it's the sacrifice I want to make.
"Since I've met Colin [Bell, manager], there have been huge changes and he still encourages me to keep going. He just wants the best for me, I want the best for me and for the team. I know if I am on my game I will help the team. Colin says give yourself the best opportunity to be the best you can be, and that comes down to nutrition, and training. That is something I will be working extremely hard on now ahead of the Norway games."
It's just over a year since Barrett decided to focus on soccer. She had tried to juggle inter-county football with Donegal and top-level soccer with Peamount. She doesn't drive so there were many hours spent on buses travelling around the country for games and training.
She didn't think too much about it though, as she didn't know any different. But eventually her health suffered, and early last year she was struck down by glandular fever and she missed almost five weeks of college. When she recovered she got back on the pitch as quickly as she could.
A couple of months later Barrett was playing for Peamount against Kilkenny and after that game she got word that Bell wanted to meet her for a chat. They met in the Citywest Hotel. Bell told Barrett that he was impressed with her but also said that if she wanted to cut it at international level she would have to make some changes.
"He never told me that I should stop playing Gaelic but he did tell me that I was going to be competing against other girls who are dedicating their whole lives to playing soccer. There are girls doing eight or nine soccer sessions a week; I'd do three Gaelic sessions and two soccer sessions. He put no pressure on me but I knew straight away I had to stop playing Gaelic and I had such a big opportunity and I wanted to give it my all."
At that time Donegal were going well. They reached the National League Division 1 final but Barrett had her mind made up and pulled out of the panel. She was determined to chase her dream of playing for Ireland at senior level.
Fast-forward to last week and Barrett was a hero after her stunning goal. Her hard work and dedication paid off. But with this status comes scrutiny and Barrett has already learned a little about that.
When the ball went into the net in Tallaght she pulled her jersey over her head and ran to the corner flag wearing her green base-layer top, carrying her jersey in her hand. Although most of the attention she received after the game was positive there were some people who took issue with her celebration and made their feelings known online.
"I got a bit of flak, it wasn't planned. It's not something I think I would do again," says Barrett. "I value a lot the kind of person I am and the morals I have. It's not an image that I want people to look at and have that perception of me. Emotions were running high and I did it without thinking. I know a lot of young girls have high regard for me and that's not what I want them to think of. I want them to think of the goal scored, not everything that came after.
"On social media people reflected on it and there were some negative comments but I really don't care about them. I don't think about the negative comments about the celebration but I think about the achievement of scoring the winner in an important World Cup qualifier. I just don't know why people bother writing some of the stuff they do."
Barrett's grounded nature is a testament to her upbringing. Her parents have always been supportive. Growing up in a sports-mad house in Donegal she was happiest when playing outside with her two brothers. And her talents weren't reserved for just team sports: she was a talented sprinter and long-jumper and has a handful of All-Ireland medals to prove it.
As for the future, Barrett is focused on the upcoming Norway games and achieving World Cup qualification with Ireland. When she finishes college she plans on testing herself in the professional game, maybe in England, but she's open to travelling further afield.
The 22-year-old is a big Manchester United fan and their plans for a women's team intrigue her. No matter what path Barrett chooses to follow, she will work hard to succeed. That's her way.
Sunday Indo Sport