Belfast Telegraph

'Better late than never' as Patricia gets Northern Ireland cap more than 30 years after hanging up her football boots

By Ivan Little

A Coleraine woman who played football for Northern Ireland has received her international cap - 36 years after representing her country.

Hairdresser Patricia Rohdich was one of a number of women belatedly recognised by the Irish footballing authorities at a special ceremony at Windsor Park.

But Patricia (56), whose maiden name was McAleese, said the wait was worthwhile and it's not old hat.

"It's better late than never," she said.

"I played for Northern Ireland way back in the Eighties and I never thought I would get a cap. No-one ever thought of anything like that in those days for the ladies.

"All the talk then was about Billy Bingham's team who were qualifying for the World Cup finals in Spain. But women's football has moved on dramatically from the way it was in my time."

Patricia's footballing career kicked off with a team called Sparta Ladies in Ballymoney, who were managed by the late David Atkinson, and he took her and three other girls to trials for Northern Ireland.

"We made the squad," said Patricia who was a midfielder and sometime centre-half. "But playing for Northern Ireland was all very low key. We were paying to play or organising fund-raising events.

"The women's game was very much the poor relation. We had to travel to matches by boat and car and I remember once on our way to a match in Wales we ran out of petrol and another driver let us syphon fuel from his car or we would have missed the kick-off."

Patricia was, however, able to see the more glamorous side of the beautiful game in the US in 1981.

"They picked players from each of the teams in our local league to go to the States under the name of the Northern Ireland All-Stars as guests of an American women's team called the Thunderbirds. We played games everywhere, from Vancouver to California. We were interviewed by the media everywhere we went, but they were more interested in the fact we were from Northern Ireland and yet, at the height of the Troubles, we had Protestants and Catholics playing side by side."

Patricia and two other girls, Geraldine Smith and Jennifer Gaston, were offered the chance to return to the US to play football professionally.

But Patricia said: "I was very young and I didn't have the nerve to go. But Geraldine went and she is still there. She is coaching and is very heavily involved in football."

It was a conversation between Geraldine and officials of the NI Women's Football Association that led to the awarding of caps to former players.

But even though the authorities agreed to tackle the problem, it wasn't easy to track down the ex-stars from so long ago.

Many of the girls had changed their names or moved away from their old addresses.

"I got a phone call one evening and I was asked if I'd played football for Northern Ireland and when I confirmed that I had turned out for the team I was invited to Windsor Park for a cap presentation from Dame Mary Peters," said Patricia.

"No matter how many appearances we'd made, we all received one cap each. It was a fantastic night and the memories came flooding back even if it took a wee minute or two for us all to recognise one another."

Among the guests were former England player and manager Hope Powell and Northern Ireland's current boss Alfie Wylie.

Actress Tara Lynne O'Neill, who's developing a play about women's football, read extracts from her work.

Another ex-Sparta footballer who played alongside Patricia was Barbara Cameron who went on to win a Commonwealth Games bronze medal for lawn bowling and now manages the Northern Ireland team.

Nowadays, women's football in Northern Ireland is a different ball game from how it was in Patricia's day. "It's great to see the backing that the local leagues and the international team are receiving. The game is run almost like a business but I'm not jealous," she said. "I'm just happy to see the recognition from everyone in football, including the established clubs, and it's tremendous to see so much coverage on television too. In many ways we paved the way for ladies' football in Northern Ireland."

Patricia's son Josh plays for Portstewart FC. And he was the first person his mother contacted on hearing that she was going to get her long-overdue cap. "I told him that his oul ma had got a cap before him," laughed Patricia.

Former Coleraine and Northern Ireland goalkeeper Victor Hunter visited Patricia after hearing she'd finally got her cap.

"He told me he and his brother Allan, who played for Ipswich, had over 50 caps between them - but Victor said he only got two and he brought both to my hairdressing salon," she said."He had managed my son at Portstewart and joked that he didn't know he was coaching the son of a Northern Ireland international."

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