'If I can make football a full-time career, so can other Northern Ireland girls' says Everton star
Simone Magill became the first female footballer from Northern Ireland to play for a Premier League team when she was signed full-time by Everton FC a few months ago.
She tells Kerry McKittrick how her new goal is to be capped 100 times playing for the national team.
One of the best games of Simone Magill's career also turned out to be the worst. On June 3, 2016, Simone set the world record for the fastest international women's goal when she scored against the Georgia women's national team for Northern Ireland in just 11 seconds.
However, it was in the same game that Simone received her latest concussion - and it was one that almost put her out of the sport.
"I got battered in the face and that knocked me out," says the 22-year-old Magherafelt native.
"I have had a few concussions and it took me a long time to come around from this one - five months.
"I couldn't do anything. I couldn't play football and I couldn't do any of my university work because of the strain on my neck and shoulders when sitting at a computer.
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"It was the longest five months of my life - all I've ever known is football."
Despite the serious knock, Simone has recently made history as the first female footballer from the province to be signed full-time by a Premier League team, taking up a dream role as a player with Everton Football Club a few months ago.
While her move to full-time status is a fairly recent development, she has been a part-time player for the club, better known by the Goodison Park faithful as the Toffees, since her teens.
But her love of the beautiful game precedes her first day at school with Simone making her first appearance on a football pitch aged just four. She was tagging along with her older brother Kris and wanted to join in. Her first games saw her playing for Tobermore Mini Soccer every Saturday morning from then on.
Coming from a football-mad Manchester United supporting family, it didn't take long for Simone's natural talent to shine through.
At the ripe-old age of seven she was scouted to play for Cookstown Youth Boys before progressing to the Mid-Ulster Ladies team at 15 - the age boys and girls are separated in football.
But Simone usually played for more than one team, having been called up to the Northern Ireland under-13s aged just 11. Over the years she moved to the under-15s, until she started for the senior team, again aged just 15.
"From a young age all I wanted to do was play football and my parents were really supportive," says Simone, who is a forward.
"They didn't push me to have a back-up career and they always let me make my own decisions. My dad Colin works in construction and mum Sharon works in a shop in Magherafelt. We are just an ordinary family."
When she started playing earnestly, there weren't many female football players and Simone was usually the only girl on the local team - something that didn't escape the notice of the opposing sides.
"The other sides would laugh at us for having a girl on the team," says Simone. "It happened all the time and it lasted until we started playing. It didn't bother me because once I got the ball off them and went round them they weren't laughing anymore. After the game they would normally come up to me and apologise.
"My team mates were great though, I always felt like a respected member of the team and wasn't treated any differently than the rest of the players."
From a young age Simone balanced a full training schedule with her academic life. She completed her GCSEs at Sperrin Integrated College and then moved to Magherafelt High School to do her A-levels.
She does admit that balancing sport and education took a bit of juggling.
"I did do a lot of homework while I was travelling," she says. "The schools were great about it, particularly once I had joined the Northern Ireland senior team as I would be away for up to a week every other month.
"They didn't mind that much because they got a lot of publicity. Every time my name was mentioned, the school I went to was mentioned too."
Things would change even more for Simone, though, once she started studying for A-levels. At that stage most young people are considering their next move in education - university or college. For Simone it was different. With the help of her coaches at Mid-Ulster Ladies, she began searching for a Premier League football team.
"I knew from quite early on that I was going to have to go away to England or America if I wanted to progress my game," she adds.
"The family support Manchester United, but they don't actually have a women's team. Everton are known for playing their youth - I want to play football, not sit on the sidelines - and Liverpool isn't that far away from home. My coaches contacted them and I was invited for a trial."
Simone signed for Everton FC aged 18 but only on a part-time basis. For the rest of the academic year she divided her time between Northern Ireland and Liverpool. She says: "I would fly over to Liverpool on Thursday night, play over the weekend, then get the 6am flight back on a Monday morning for school.
"Most people choose their university by what they want to study but I chose Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, Lancashire, purely for where it was, so I could study while I played," she adds.
"Of course I follow women's football so when I arrived at Everton I was a little star-struck by all of the familiar faces I saw. But then I started playing with the team and became part of it all."
Simone signed a full-time contract just a couple of months ago, becoming the first female professional football player from Northern Ireland.
"When I was growing up there weren't many female football players but now girls in Northern Ireland can see players like me as role models. If I can make playing football my career, then they can too."
Wearing the number 10 shirt for both Everton and Northern Ireland, Simone says she is fully dedicated to playing the beautiful game.
"Everton are a wonderful club that have put a lot of backing into their women's team. We train at the same facilities as the men and park our cars beside theirs. It doesn't feel like the men's team and the women's team. It just feels like we're all Everton and it's great to be a part of it," she says.
With the gender pay gap currently in the headlines, Simone is more than aware of the astonishing amounts that male footballers make.
Everton's most notable recent signing was, of course, Wayne Rooney who agreed to a 50% pay cut to return to his boyhood club - taking his weekly earnings to £150,000 rather than the £300,000-plus salary he had at his old club Manchester United. And that's before sponsorship deals and other add-ons are accounted for.
"There are no yachts or supercars for the girls yet, but that doesn't mean that women's football isn't going to get bigger and that it isn't going to get better," says Simone.
"We get millions of viewers now. Years ago a female, full-time, professional Premier League player was unheard of but now there are lots of us.
"I don't think that women's football will ever get to the crazy money stage of the men's game, but then I think they are two different games. I think women's football should be viewed on its merits, instead of side-by-side with the men's game."
At just 22, Simone's career is hopefully still in its infancy, but she's not one to rest on her laurels. During her part-time days at Everton, she completed a First Class Honours degree and is just about to complete her Masters in coaching.
"Now that I've signed for Everton full-time and I have finished my education, for the first time I'll be able to focus fully on football. I can relax when I'm not playing football which I've never been able to do before."
As for her future in football, Simone has plenty of ambitions. And with partner Mark Rigby in her corner, the sky really is the limit for the player from Co Londonderry. Simone says: "I met Mark at university. At the moment he's working as a classroom assistant as well as being a badminton coach.
"We live together and have been together for almost three years, although the wonderful thing is that now that I'm full-time we have more time to spend together.
"Before, by the time he got back from school I would be away to train for the evening.
"Mark loves what I do for a living. It's the first thing he tells people about me because he's so proud of me. I try to get him to stop telling people straight away.
With her life on course, Simone's latest goal is this: "I'm about to get my 50th cap for Northern Ireland, which is something I'm really proud of," she says, "but I would like to go on and get 100 caps.
"I was the captain of the under 17 and under 19 sides, so a real individual goal for me would be to captain the senior team.
"For Northern Ireland as a whole I would love to see us qualify for a major tournament like the Euros, just as the men's team did last year. I want to prove myself, but I would love to help put Northern Ireland on the map."
As to looking ahead and life beyond football, that doesn't seem to be an option for Simone. She spends her Saturday morning putting her degree to good use by coaching one-to-one or local children's football teams in Liverpool.
"Even after I stop playing, somehow or other I'll be involved in the game or at least I'll try to be. Football is all I've known since I was four years old," says Simone.