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'Football has been so good to me and now I want to try to inspire young girls to take part and enjoy it'

As the Northern Ireland's female football team battles to qualify for Euro 2021, securing a draw against Wales on Tuesday night, Leona O'Neill talks to two trailblazers who are part of the revolution in the sport

Marissa Callaghan
Marissa Callaghan
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

Thirty-four-year-old Marissa Callaghan is captain of the Northern Ireland women's football team. The Belfast woman is also a girls' participation officer at the Irish Football Association. She has played for Cliftonville Ladies since she was 13 years old.

"I always played football when I was a kid," she says. "I would play on the street with the boys as we didn't really have many girls' teams back then, so playing with the boys was the only option. It wasn't until I was 13 that I got into my first girls' team.

"And that was all through my youth leader Marty Foy - he put me in contact with Newington Girls who then amalgamated with Cliftonville, so I have been playing for the Cliftonville Ladies since I was 13."

Marissa says that there are so many more opportunities for female footballers now than when she was a young player.

"In my position in the Irish Football Association I'm lucky enough to be able to offer opportunities throughout Northern Ireland to young girls," she says.

"We are starting off a Shooting Stars programme which aims to reach girls as young as four years old up to the age of 11. The programme is about getting young girls involved, making it all fun and hopefully getting them to fall in love with the game.

"At the end of the day, football has been so good to me and I just want to try to inspire young girls to enjoy it and let them know that it can open up a lot of doors for them."

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Marissa says that exciting things are happening in the game here.

"I can only talk for Northern Ireland football - at the minute our association is starting to pump a lot of money into girls' football, because they are obviously seeing that it's the biggest growing sport in the world," she explains.

"If the senior women's team keeps doing well at the top, then everything else will filter in below that. We need to just keep working hard and keep inspiring the girls.

"The more young girls that we get playing, the more players that we will get to choose from for our senior team in the future. And that can only better the country playing football."

She believes that the Women's World Cup has raised the stakes enormously for the game on a world stage.

"From the World Cup the women's game has grown massively in the last couple of months," she says.

Marissa Callaghan playing for NI
Marissa Callaghan playing for NI

"There is a lot more awareness around it. People are starting to take heed of it.

"Even when the Northern Ireland men did so well in the Euros a couple of years ago, that has boosted Northern Ireland football."

And new sponsorships have taken the game to even greater heights. Electric Ireland first became involved in girls' and women's football just over two years ago when it launched the Game Changers campaign in partnership with the IFA.

In August, the company and the IFA announced a further expansion to their partnership which meant that the energy provider became the title sponsor of the Northern Ireland senior women's international team as part of a broad commitment to women's football.

Electric Ireland's support now also covers title sponsor to the Northern Ireland youth international teams as well as the elite pathway for the female game. In addition the company is lead sponsor for women's and girls' grassroots football and competitions like the Electric Ireland Women's Challenge Cup and Schools' Cup as well as the Shooting Stars initiative which encourages girls aged four to seven to play football.

"What's happening now is because the awareness is so high," Marissa says. "The likes of Electric Ireland have come in these last few years and that has really helped to promote the women's game here.

"They have increased participation with young girls and it is those sponsorships that are helping to build and grow awareness.

"It is just a really good time to be involved in women's and girls' football."

Marissa says that the fight against the perception that women's football isn't taken seriously is a daily battle.

"The fight is still there," she says. "When I was younger and playing with the boys, I got a lot of respect for it.

"There were some people who would have said that I was a tomboy.

"But I grew up in west Belfast and got a lot of respect for playing alongside the boys and I was lucky not to come across anything like that. But back then I knew a lot of young girls involved in boys' teams who got a lot of stick and still do to this day.

"Those are the girls who are championing it all going forward, because they are brave enough to step onto the pitch with the boys.

"I would encourage young girls who are involved in boys' teams to stick with it and stay as long as they can, because it helps with their development. The girls' clubs across Northern Ireland are just growing and growing.

"There are so many opportunities out there for girls and it's up to us as senior players who have been around for a few years, to inspire them and show them what is out there."

Twenty-four-year-old Magherafelt footballer Simone Magill has been signed to Everton Women since she was 18 years old and the professional has won 50 caps for Northern Ireland.

Simone Magill

She has been playing football since she was four years old and says she faced a daily battle to be taken seriously as a female footballer, often laughed at by male players. She says that their smirks were often wiped off their faces when she took to the pitch.

"I've been playing pretty much all my life," she says. "I had an older brother who played for Tobermore United every Saturday and I used to wonder what he was doing and wanted to get in on the action. So I went along one week and that was pretty much it, I was hooked. And I have never looked back.

"I played with the boys in primary school because we didn't have a girls' team and played with Tobermore on a Saturday. Then I tried out for Cookstown Boys' team. I remember there were 100 boys at the tryouts and I was the only girl, but I got into the team and was with them from the age of 11 until I was 15. So that was my first proper club where I was playing in a league. I was the only girl at that time that I can remember doing this.

"The team I was with were really good, they didn't treat me any differently. I played every week and in their eyes I was just a part of the team as much as any boy was.

"When I was coming up against other teams it was funny. When I was lining up before we played, some of the boys in the other team would be laughing. But as soon as we started playing, they quickly shut up. I was well used to it and I just let the football do the talking."

Simone - who lives and breathes football - also played with Mid Ulster Ladies for several years before she made the move to England where she was signed by Everton Women.

"When I was 18-years-old I came over to Everton for a trial," she says. "It was all semi-professional back then. There were no real professional women's teams. I trialled for them at 18 and I tied it in with university and I have been signed with them ever since.

"I did three years semi-professional alongside university, then did a Masters on top and literally as I graduated, I turned professional. So it worked out quite nicely for me. I'm going into my third season of being a full professional. So it's pretty good."

She says, despite female players performing at the top of their game, inequality, particularly around pay, is still an issue.

"In terms of investment that is going into the women's game, the top players are beginning to get large sums of money, but it would be nowhere near what a top male player would be getting," she says.

"But what we get paid is enough for female football players to live comfortably and they don't need to be looking about getting anything else in terms of other work. It's getting better every year and it's growing and getting more investment and sponsorship coming in."

She adds: "I think the women's game needs to be viewed as its own and people need to stop making comparisons with the male game. If you watch one and then watch the other, it's the same game, but it is played in a completely different way.

"Every year in terms of investment, sponsorship and media exposure, it is getting bigger and better and that can only help us in terms of attracting the right people to come and watch the games. On the opening week of the league we got record attendances to many of the fixtures - over 35,000 attended one game. That is fantastic. Things like that are now helping it and people are starting to take the game a lot more seriously than they did a couple of years ago."

Playing for Northern Ireland

Despite this, Simone says she and female footballers face abuse on social media and struggle with some quarters taking their profession seriously, but that the Women's World Cup during the summer worked wonders in raising the game's profile.

"You'll always get people who don't take it seriously," she says. "Especially on social media. People will say to us, professional footballers, to get back in the kitchen. We get that a lot. But we are well used to it. I suppose it's like anything in life, there are people who just don't buy into it and have something to say.

"I think the Women's World Cup did something great this year. It was being shown on your mainstream channels so everyone could access all the games.

"Even my neighbours were coming up to me and saying that they watched the match.

"People were talking about it in everyday conversations and I think that did absolute wonders for the game."

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