Belfast Telegraph

Our American cousins getting a kick out of playing for NI in Euro finals

By Laure James

Two teenage footballers from the US with family roots in Northern Ireland are preparing to play their part for the province in a match against Scotland.

But learning the local lingo hasn't been a problem for 16-year-old Leyla McFarland from San Diego.

"It's not soccer, it's football," Leyla said as she scolded herself, grinning.

"Soccer even sounds weird here and people look at you as if to say: 'What?'."

Leyla is a fully-established forward with the Northern Ireland Under-19 women's team, who are preparing to take on the Scots tonight at Mourneview Park, the home of Glenavon FC.

The daughter of a former east Belfast dockworker, she is one of two transatlantic imports the Irish Football Association has brought over to strengthen the squad at the Uefa Women's Under-19 European Championship.

Laughing with Leyla about how "soccer" is a no-go, while they grapple with "yous'uns", is Megan Riley, who has flown in from Texas to participate.

"My dad is a huge Northern Ireland fan, so when I said I wanted to contact the IFA and see if I could come on trial, he was delighted," she said.

"We called the manager, Alfie Wylie, and he invited me over for a trial a couple of months ago.

"I used to visit when I was little, but I hadn't been back for over a decade so it was really good for me to visit family.

"I do feel at home here and playing football is a great excuse to come back."

Leyla has ambitions to study forensic medicine, while Megan (17) has her sights set on a professional contract.

"My grandfather was born in Northern Ireland but I would move to the UK or somewhere else in Europe to sign full-time for a club.

"I first came over in February and was invited back to join up with the squad, which I jumped at.

"It was tricky to blend in as it's always a bit hard being different.

"Our friends are in different time zones, but the girls are all very welcoming.

"They really have become our new friends.

"They always say 'buzzing', which we're told is really common in football over here, but we had never heard it.

"Now everything's buzzing, we hear it 10 times a day and we are up for the next game.

"I hear 'yous'uns' too, which we find funny."

As athletes, they naturally come with competitive natures. Tuesday night's record crowd of 4,289 - the largest ever for a women's football game in Northern Ireland - in their 2-0 defeat to Spain at the National Stadium even helped Leyla win a sibling bet.

"My sister is a dancer and she performs in front of thousands of people," she said.

"We usually have competitions with each other about who can get the biggest crowd, and even though women's football is really popular in the States, she usually wins.

"The crowd in Belfast was just amazing, definitely the biggest thing I have ever been a part of.

"I've never experienced anything like that.

"I definitely won the bet that night.

"It shows women's football is on the rise and it's a very exciting time to be involved.

"It's reinforced the fact I want to stick with international football for as long as possible with Northern Ireland. That's my dream."

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