This summer at the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 our eyes will be on the Northern Ireland women’s football team, but there’s plenty happening at grassroots level
Making history by qualifying for the championships for the first time, the NI team are blazing a trail for women’s football — opening up opportunities in the game for future generations.
Many are unaware that it’s a sport women were banned from playing for 50 years — the FA in England deemed it “unsuitable for females” in 1921 — so it’s unsurprising that women’s football has faced many challenges and hurdles along the way.
Thankfully the tide is turning and the women’s game is becoming more recognised and celebrated, with more opportunities for young girls and women to play and compete. The ladies game is on an upward trajectory and the number of women playing in teams has risen in recent years, especially following the success of the Women’s World Cup in 2019.
Not having the opportunity to play football as a young girl, Lisburn mum Ashlene Bustard (39) decided to take matters into her own hands and set up an amateur football team for women: Belfast Ladies.
“I would have very rarely kicked a ball about when I was younger,” explains the mum-of-three. “There was nothing really like that growing up, certainly where I grew up anyway.”
It was watching one of her kids play football that inspired Ashlene to take up the sport in adulthood.
“It just started off probably about 10 girls who I knew through my kid’s football, who were like myself — mummies standing on the side watching them all play football and saying, ‘ack c’mon and give this a go, it will be a laugh if nothing else’,” she recalls.
Ashlene created a WhatsApp group, set a date and time, and booked a pitch. And that was it. The mums turned out as planned on a Thursday evening in the springtime for a kickabout.
“We were complete amateurs,” says Ashlene. “We threw a ball in the middle and said: “Let’s go!”
“There were a few girls who had a bit of experience who would help other girls along; they really have taken girls under their wing and helped them out.
“I would have been the keeper and I’ve never had any kind of training.
“It was just — you learn as you go along, basically.”
That was around four years ago, and the group of mums have built up to a squad of 30-plus players — and counting. They play regular friendlies and compete in tournaments with other amateur women’s teams in and around Belfast.
They’ve gained sponsorship from local businesses and now have their own kit that they were given from the Irish Football Association (IFA). They’ve also hosted a stream of social events for the club, including award nights and fundraisers.
Despite not having played football growing up, beauty therapist Ashlene absolutely loves playing as an adult and running the team.
“It’s a full-time job being a mummy so it’s good to have that wee outlet and be around people that also know what you’re going through as well.
“It’s all based around just having fun when we do our training sessions — and the feelgood factor of laughter is the best medicine. There’s no Ronaldos out on the pitch,” she laughs.
“It’s a bunch of mummies and older ladies all just wanting to get together and have a kickabout and enjoy it.
“A lot of the girls enjoy getting out of the house and getting their heads showered and doing something for themselves.
“And there’s a social aspect to it, we organise nights out through it.”
One of the sides the Belfast Ladies play against are Belfast Ravens: a women’s team that was set up in 2017 by a bunch of friends — all beginners — who had taken part in a charity football tournament and enjoyed it so much they decided to form a team.
Mum-of-four Kathryn Martin (41) has been with the Belfast Ravens since the start. She took a short break recently to give birth, but was keen to get back on the pitch again.
“I’d never played football in my life until I started,” says Kathryn. “I’d only ever played netball. I don’t remember having the opportunity to play football, but I have to admit I don’t know if I ever had the interest to play football either.”
But since turning up that first night, Kathryn has taken to the sport and loves it.
“It’s the community aspect of it. And the fact of getting exercise, setting myself a weekly commitment and belonging to a team.
“Instead of just heading out to the gym by myself, it’s easier to stick to and you feel part of something and committed to the people as well.”
Kathryn is a busy woman. She has four young kids, including a one-year-old baby, and works full-time as a drama teacher in a secondary school, with extra-curricular drama activities on the side. But she wouldn’t miss getting to play football with her close-knit team very week.
“I’ve got really close friends now from the team, we’re friends outside of football as well, but that’s where we see each other and that’s what we have in common.
“We have a lot of good times and bad times together, on the pitch and off. And I think it really brings us close together as friends as well.”
Lifelong friendships have also been built up in the Belfast Ladies team. Ashlene says: “The laughs we have are really great. There are girls come in, maybe got in contact from Facebook or got my number from somebody that came along. And everybody’s just so welcoming, it really is a great wee team, the support that everybody gives each other is amazing.
“Everybody goes through different wee things through life. A few years ago I was having a bit of a hard time and that’s why I got involved in football, thinking I just needed something to focus on and it’s the best thing ever, it turned me around. It’s the best medicine.
“So many people have come to me and told me different stories about how starting football at such a late age, and the craic and the friendship, have really helped them.”
But what’s it like starting football in later life, having rarely kicked a ball before?
“It was terrible,” laughs Kathryn. “I think a lot of us were terrible at the start. Some of the girls in the team were very big football fans when they were younger and had a really good grasp of the rules. Like anything else, the more you do it the more you learn, and we’re all willing to learn and keen to learn.
“I think you come to an age where you think well is this it? Am I never going to learn any new skills again in my life, am I just going to be safe and stick with what I know?
“Or am I going to push myself a bit? And I think if you push yourself a bit you never really regret it. And I certainly haven’t when it comes to football.”
Ashlene shares the sentiment: “We would have people coming saying, ‘oh I’ve never kicked a ball before!’ or ‘I’ve never played before!’ but they surprise themselves. Especially when you get a goal or you do something really amazing, it gives you a boost of confidence.
“Although we’re still playing catch-up with the boys, there are a lot more opportunities for girls to play the sport nowadays.”
Armed with talent, sheer grit and determination, the NI women’s team have fought their way to the big stage — showing what can be achieved when, in the words of team captain Marissa Callaghan, you “work hard, dream big”.
Gaining professional status this year, the players are fierce role models for our local, grassroots teams.
“Our team are really inspired by the Northern Ireland women’s team,” says Kathyrn.
“We had an award ceremony and Marissa Callaghan, who is captain of Northern Ireland women’s team, came to us to talk about the upcoming Euros and how excited they were for that, and how all of them have been given six months off work for training and preparing for the tournament. How it’s being taken seriously by the IFA and just how exciting that is for women’s football.
“And what an exciting time it is for young girls in Northern Ireland playing football to have them as a national team to look up to.”