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Ladies getting a kick out of the beautiful game - women footballers share their love of the sport

As the annual O'Neills Foyle Cup continues this week with more female teams taking part than ever before, Geraldine McFadden talks to three women footballers about their love of the sport

Big plans: Mollie Gilmore wants to develop the ladies’ game
Big plans: Mollie Gilmore wants to develop the ladies’ game
Big changes: Caoimhe McLaughlin played in the first Derry City ladies team
Game changer: England midfielder Karen Carney and Scotland’s Chloe Arthur during the Women’s World Cup
Veteran player: Kelly Crompton has been with Sion Swifts since she was five

By Geraldine McFadden

The Fifa Women's World Cup fired up the imagination of young female football players like no other tournament. Seeing outstanding professionals attract unprecedented crowds, both in the stadiums around France and on our television screens, has shown footie-mad females from across Northern Ireland that they can dream of playing on the big stage unlike any previous generation.

When Sion Swifts goalkeeper Nicole McClure stepped into nets for Jamaica, she proved that anything was possible with drive and determination.

And where better to begin that journey than at a celebrated homegrown international event, the O'Neills Foyle Cup, which kicked off in Londonderry and the wider north west on Monday and runs until Saturday, with more female teams competing in more age groups than ever before?

Among them will be teams from Linfield Ladies FC Youth Academy, where the impact of the Women's World Cup can be seen already, with young girls coming to training wearing the women's team tops emblazoned with the names of star players.

Mollie Gilmore runs the club's youth academy, which got off the ground three years ago. This year, they're bringing five teams to the O'Neills Foyle Cup to defend the U9 and U11 titles they won last year, and they're hoping to make a hat-trick with a win in the U13 category too.

Linfield attracts players from Portavogie to Enniskillen and from Portadown to Kilkeel, with 115 girls, aged from five to 17, on their books, such is the reputation the ladies' academy has built up.

Mollie (25) says: "A lot of players come to us, especially at the older age, where it's competitive, but lately we have seen a lot of interest now happening at the younger ages, also due to our success over the years and the opportunities we create.

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"For example, we took three squads to Manchester, who competed against clubs such as West Brom, and three squads to the Barcelona Girls Cup, where we competed against clubs from all over the world, including Barcelona FC. 

"We see ourselves as the biggest female club in Northern Ireland, having won the Women's Premiership league three years in a row. Now our academy girls have a lot to aspire towards and we are here to help them reach their goals.

"The parents are happy with the travelling as they believe what they get in return in terms of coaching and the professional image and standards within the club is worth it.

"Linfield is a club with a lot of great history, achieving so much at male level and now female level. Who wouldn't want their kids pulling on the jersey? 

"My husband, Peter, and I both coach at the club. We have invested a lot of time in women's football and therefore have the resources and knowledge to help develop the girls, but the main thing we have is desire and commitment towards the club and the players within it.

"I've played a lot of football, starting out at my local club, Abbey Villa FC. I've represented clubs such as Glentoran and Linfield, as well as Northern Ireland at the Rose Bowl. I've always had an interest but was once told by a coach I wasn't allowed to play as it was for boys only.

"Then, at the age of 12, a new coach came in and allowed me to sign up. I went on to captain the team, as well as win manager's player of the year.

"Even then, I would hear comments like, 'Girls shouldn't be in this league, they should play netball'.

"I have even had a female coach put a complaint in about girls playing in boys' leagues."

The Donaghadee native, who made the Co Down squad and went on to represent Northern Ireland in the Rose Bowl, adds: "When I reached 15, I had to leave the boys and fell out of football, only playing a few months over the summer rather than all year around. That's why I started coaching and moved to Linfield.

"Running the academy has been an amazing experience. It has taught me a lot of life lessons and developed my coaching and love of the game.

"My aim is creating all-female teams that can compete at the top level.

"Playing in the O'Neills Foyle Cup has always been a great experience. Our girls think of the tournament as like a holiday because it's so well organised and they get trips to Brunswick Moviebowl, as well as playing matches. All the referees and officials involved are lovely to deal with.

"Some of our U13 players are in the Northern Ireland squad, so we have high hopes for them at this year's tournament.

"The Women's World Cup has had a massive impact on our girls. They're coming in wearing the women's tops with their names on them and the role models are starting to change from male players to females, so it's absolutely fantastic."

The same enthusiasm for the Women's World Cup can be found in one of the clubs more local to the O'Neills Foyle Cup, Derry City FC Girls' Academy.

The coach there, Rory Kehoe, says the media coverage this year's event attracted meant they were able to follow each match before all getting together to watch the final.

Rory, who is also development officer with the club, adds: "The Women's World Cup has raised an awareness of the opportunities available for female players.

"While some of our girls didn't know any of the teams to start with, they're now able to name all the players. It's been massive."

Like their Linfield opponents, Derry City FC Girls' Academy has been running for three years. Their teams range from Under 7s to Ladies.

Rory says: "For us, the next step is looking at getting competitive. There is no league for girls in the north west for these ages, so we'd like to work with the boys' leagues.

"We have a number of players from the U11s and U13s in IFA development groups. They are progressing really well and getting ambitions, but there are limited opportunities for girls.

"We wanted to introduce different age groups to give girls locally an opportunity.

"A lot of girls play with local boys' clubs and we would encourage them to do both, but once they get to U13 or U15, there's nothing for them except moving on to seniors, so we want to introduce more steps."

Female teams are competing in the U9, U11, U13, U16 and ladies' categories during this year's tournament, with teams from Larne to Inishowen amongst them.

Michael Hutton, chairman of the O'Neills Foyle Cup, says: "We are immensely proud to have more female teams than ever before in this year's tournament.

"We welcome them all and hope that the numbers continue to grow, so that in the future, who knows, we may be able to say we gave a star of the Women's World Cup her start."

'The Women's World Cup really opened the eyes of people who in the past would not have paid attention to ladies' football'

Kelly Crompton (22) agrees that the Women's World Cup has been a game changer, both in terms of perception of the women's game and the opportunities it's likely to open up to young female players coming through the ranks now.

The Co Tyrone woman has played for her local club, Sion Swifts, since she was just five years of age and says she was "really, really lucky" to never encounter any barriers to playing the game.

"I started with the Sion Swifts and I have never left," Kelly says. "I played with the boys up until I was about 11 and then a girls' side was formed in the club. The coach, Danny Gallagher, asked me to join and I didn't look back.

"I played up through the girls' youth sides at U13, U15 and U17, but I was also eligible to play for the women's team from the age of 14, so I was playing between the two.

"I'm one of only two players on the senior team from Sion - I'm a real die-hard.

"When I played with the boys, there was never any hassle. They were open to me being on the team and didn't push me aside.

"I got really, really lucky in that regard because I know a lot of girls had a different experience elsewhere.

"I think part of the reason was because the coaches made sure I wasn't made to feel any different.

"There were always a few girls coming into the club, but it really took off in 2010 when Danny started up a girls' side.

"His niece and I were both playing with the boys, but there's a certain age when the girls and boys aren't allowed to play together and, as we were approaching that age, he wanted to give us a pathway to be able to play on.

"There weren't many teams doing that at that time, but for me it was a real godsend. I came on in leaps and bounds.

"When Tony McGinley and Tommy Canning took over after about four years, they gave the girls' teams a real big push.

"We now have about 100 players, which is incredible. People come from all over to train with us. The Women's World Cup really opened the eyes of people who wouldn't have paid any attention to women's football before.

"I work in a shop and a lot of the older men coming in would now chat to me about football, whereas in the past they wouldn't.

"A lot of them said they enjoyed watching the Women's World Cup because of the way the women play - they said they don't fall or dive as much. They just get up and go, so it's better to watch.

"Our senior team plays in the Northern Ireland Football League and we have big hopes of winning the league, which would bring us onto Champions League football. If that happened, that would be my life made - I could retire at 23.

"I've had such a positive experience in my playing career and the O'Neills Foyle Cup is the best week in football. I've played in it every year since 2012, except for one when I was volunteering in Africa and last year when I was out all season with an injury, so I coached the Under-9s. That was such a different experience, but equally as good.

"The event is big in our calendar and we're all really excited that it's that time of year again."

‘After years in the background, we’re now seeing the women’s game flourish here’

As part of the first Derry City Ladies FC squad in 2002, Caoimhe McLaughlin has enjoyed the agonies and ecstasies of a life in sport - with promotions and relegations from the First Division to the Premiership to the Championship and back to the Premiership - but it's only in the last three years that she feels women's football has started to be taken more seriously. And she thinks the 2019 Women's World Cup can only be good for the game, providing much needed female role models.

Taking a break from playing to have a baby later this year, the 30-year-old from Londonderry is still heavily involved with her club.

She says: "When I was growing up nearly all my sport heroes were men, simply because they were the most prominent on TV and in the papers. Now though, for the younger generation, the wheel is turning but it's a slow process.

"The recent Women's World Cup has been amazing. I have a massive amount of respect for all women that play at that intensity. They train every day with very limited funding and make so many sacrifices on a daily basis just in order to play the game, simply because they love it. It is very refreshing."

Caoimhe followed in her father Kevin Logue's footsteps with her love of football and, with the support of her dad and mum Ann, she has had only positive experiences in her chosen sport. 

She adds: "I had fantastic coaches as a child, such as Gerry Coulhon, Paul Roddy and Eddie Seydak. Back then I was a girl playing on boys' teams, it wasn't the norm, but they made it easier and some of the best days I had as a player was with those teams."

Having played with the ladies from the age of 13, Caoimhe became a player/coach in 2016 and has since taken on the roles of club liaison officer and club secretary at Derry City FC.

Looking back on her 17 years in female football, she feels there has finally been a breakthrough.

"The club that I and many of the 'veteran' players, such as Rosie Cunningham, Molly McBride and Shannon Dunne, now represent is one that is completely unrecognisable from the club we began playing with back in the early days," she says. "We are seeing women's and girls' football in the city flourish."

And thanks to a women's youth academy set up by Rory Kehoe in 2014, the female players are represented at every level in Northern Ireland and beyond.

Caoimhe adds: "The highlight of the year as a young footballer was always the Foyle Cup. A week of non-stop football in the sun, we were in our element.

"I always got a great enjoyment out of sport, the feeling of being fit, having fun and meeting friends was the first of many influences. As I got older, I realised that it became more than that and found, like many other people in sport, a great confidence in myself and a sense of identity. No matter what type of day you've had, for me football will always be the best mood changer."

  • A record 424 teams have travelled from all over the world for the O'Neills Foyle Cup which will be played in the Derry City and Strabane District and, Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council areas this week. Team entries and fixtures are available at www.foylecup.com

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