Comment: How Glentoran and Linfield proved women's football is worth a chance for fans
If you'd have told a teenage me that I'd have voluntarily given up a precious Saturday evening to watch a women's football match, I'd have been fairly confused.
If you'd gone on to say I'd thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, well I'd have been well and truly baffled.
Apart from anything else, women's football was only beginning its rise to the mainstream back in my school days. The Women's Challenge Cup was first played for only in 2005 and, while names mean little, the inaugral decider between Northland Raiders and Newtownabbey at Mourneview Park wasn't quite as appealing as 2018's Big Two derby at the National Football Stadium.
I'll blame my ignorance on a lack of exposure to the women's game until relatively recent years and even now, you could count on the one hand the amount of women's games I've gone to see live. It's all a work in progress for the countless volunteers striving to boost the women's side of our beautiful game.
After Saturday evening's thrilling Electric Ireland Women's Challenge Cup tie between Glentoran and Linfield, they can place this reporter unambiguously amongst the converted.
You see, in its very essence, football is entertainment. The whole point is to come away feeling that thrill of the drama, the joy or the despair.
How does it feel to net two late goals and win the Electric Ireland Challenge Cup for Glentoran, denying Linfield a treble in the process? 💚⚫️🔴 Makyla Mulholland explains ⤵️Posted by Belfast Telegraph Sport on Saturday, September 22, 2018
Granted, a cup final lends itself to such an experience but it won't happen without a degree of skill, expertise and a must-win mentality emanating from the playing surface. It was all there on Saturday evening and it made for an enjoyable product.
Let's not lie - Northern Irish domestic women's football isn't going to provide the most skilfully impressive performance the world has seen. But neither is the average Irish League game or even men's international and, along with thousands of others, I'm a big fan of both of those.
So off to Windsor I volunteered to go on Saturday evening, full of intrigue but with my expectations suitably placed.
While there was no Messi, Ronaldo or even a Gavin Whyte, there was an Ashley Hutton, a Caragh Milligan and a Kirsty McGuinness.
In fact, there were 10 full Northern Ireland internationals across the two starting line-ups and their quality was evident.
Linfield centre-half Hutton delivered a defensive master-class that could be used as a guiding reference for aspiring young defenders (male or female). Tough in the tackle, it was thanks to the NI star that the Glens were held out for 84 minutes.
While strong defence is impressive to watch, it's attacking players that get fans off their seats. NI wingers Milligan (Glentoran) and McGuinness (Linfield) did that in abundance. Their direct running, quick feet and skilful play summed up by Milligan's trickery that danced past two defenders late in the game, only for hard-working forward Rachel Rogan to have strayed offside when she played the pass.
Then there was the quality of the goals - a 20-yard strike from Megan Bell and two bullet headers full of desperate insistence on a late turnaround from Makyla Mulholland.
So I was pleasantly surprised by the skill level on show and the occasion wasn't let down by the theatre of it all either.
I had sort of expected that, in fairness. It might be the women, but it's still the Irish League. And more often than not, you'll at least get a few late goals.
Over 1,100 fans made their way to Windsor Park on Saturday evening, almost trebling the circa 400 that watched the 2017 decider. Kudos must be handed out to the Irish FA, who drummed up media coverage and support of their showcase women's match and sponsors Electric Ireland.
As Linfield Ladies manager Head Coach Phil Lewis said before the game, "Give it a chance. It's worth a watch."
I can now vouch for that.
Belfast Telegraph Digital