Footballers' Lives with Megan Bell: 'People say girls shouldn't play football, but God's given me a talent and I will use it'
In the latest of our popular Footballers' Lives series, Linfield Ladies ace Megan Bell tells us why faith is so important to her, how the women’s game here is booming and what it was like making her senior NI bow at just 16.
Q. Megan, 2017 was an incredible year for you. Among the highlights were making your senior debut for Northern Ireland in a 3-1 World Cup qualifying win in Slovakia, playing for Northern Ireland at the Uefa Under-19 Championship against Spain, Scotland and Germany, scoring both goals in the Under-17s' Euro qualifying win against Georgia, winning the league title and League Cup with Linfield Ladies and scoring two Champions League goals for the club. Are you surprised how well it went? How proud do you feel?
A. It's been amazing, not what I expected. I wasn't expecting a late call-up to play in the Under-19 finals, and then the senior international appearance was a big surprise, but it's all been great, I've really enjoyed it. I've played at different age levels and should move up to the Under-19s shortly. If you had told me in January I would win a League and Cup with Linfield after playing nearly every game and to achieve what I have at international level, I would probably have laughed.
Q. What was the best moment for you?
A. Probably walking out at Windsor Park in front of 4,000 people for the opening game of the Under-19 finals against Spain. It was great to have my family there as well as friends from Dundonald Elim Church. They are always very supportive.
Q. When did you start playing football?
A. My first word as a child was 'ball'. I used to play with my dad James in the garden and he told me I would never hold the ball with my hands. I was always kicking it and a friend of my mum suggested I should join a girls' team. I went to Northland Raiders and we trained at Comber Leisure Centre. When I was eight, I was training with the senior ladies, which sounds crazy. Raiders changed to Linfield, and that wasn't good for me as I was a Glentoran supporter! I used to wear my Glentoran top at Linfield training but I don't do that anymore... I think Neil Morrow, the head of women's and girls' football at Linfield, wouldn't be happy. I played youth football for Linfield but it didn't challenge me, so I played for my local Dungoyne Boys team from Under-10 to Under-14 and that was one of the best decisions I made because they were stronger and it helped make me a better player. I went to Ards Rangers' boys' team and then came back to Dungoyne, but by 15 the boys were hitting me with bad tackles. All they wanted to do was kick me!
Q. As a Glentoran supporter growing up, are you disappointed you haven't played for them?
A. It's just the way things have worked out, and Linfield have been nothing but good to me and I never felt the need to go anywhere else. I'm a Linfield Ladies supporter while liking the Glens too. I have scored against them in the league and did celebrate. A few weeks after my 14th birthday I made my debut for Linfield and it was a really exciting time for me.
Q. How supportive have your coaches, family and friends been?
A. My dad James and mum Deborah have been great, while my two grandas have been brilliant. They are Norman and Jim and they follow me everywhere - they get called Bert and Ernie. They are big Glentoran fans but Linfield Ladies supporters too. My 10-year-old sister Laurie comes to the games too and she loves it, she's started to play for the Under-11 Linfield Ladies and I'm helping out with coaching. After my GCSEs at Grosvenor, I'm now at a football academy at the Hanwood Centre and hopefully it will get me a path to university. Former Linfield captain Michael Gault is one of my teachers and we train in the afternoon. Dungoyne coaches George and Maurice Chambers and Louis Campbell are friendly with my granda and they asked if I would sign for them. Roy Allen, Iain Boyd, Darren McKnight, Paul Weatherup and Darren Spence were also a great help. At Ards Rangers, I had help from coaches Simon Creaney, Rodney Smyth, Gary Hoey and Frankie Crawford. The senior girls at Linfield like Lyndsay Corry, Ali Smyth and Ashley Hutton have acted like big sisters and looked after me. I'm also very thankful to Northern Ireland women's manager Alfie Wylie for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to play for the senior team. Neil Morrow at Linfield has been great for me as he has pushed me. At our awards night, David Healy and Alfie Wylie handed out the awards and I feel part of the Linfield family. It's a really great club but, of course, if you're not with us you hate us! I try to take that away by making friendships with other players from rival clubs because Linfield is a great club regardless of what some might think. I try to take hatred out of it. I scored two goals in the Champions League, the first year Linfield had competed in it, and that was special. Our manager is David Welshman and hopefully we can stay successful.
Q. At what age did you start to think you could play for your country?
A. When I was 10 I was playing Futsal at the Shankill Leisure Centre and Stevie Graham, the Northern Ireland coach, was there. He taught me a lot about the game when I was playing at county level. The best of the county players join the elite squad and I was able to travel to places like Scotland and Wales. It was fantastic to play for the Under-17s, but the Under-19s were in at the deep end as we had no qualifying matches and we knew we had to be prepared. I've been really lucky to travel to places like the Faroe Islands, Macedonia and Latvia. Hopefully I'll be travelling the world with Northern Ireland for many years to come.
Q. Does it make you nervous knowing family and friends are watching you?
A. I love showing people that the hard work I put in pays off. It's great having them there to show that the time, effort and money that goes into my career is becoming a benefit for me. There are a few nerves but they are good nerves, but at Windsor Park you could see the big crowd and you thought, 'Wow, this is crazy'. My mum and dad have supported me financially and they keep me grounded. My dad's favourite phrase is 'work', and if I go into a daydream as a player passes to me and I hear 'work' from the sidelines I know what he's talking about.
Q. Have you a supporters' club in the church?
A. Yes, I couldn't thank the church enough for their constant love and support because if it wasn't for them I would not have achieved any of this, but none of the glory is for me - it's all for the 'big man'. The church was well represented too when we were playing in the Under-19 finals. My friendship group have been incredible. They understand that I have so many commitments but they still take me in as one of their own.
Q. When did you become Christian?
A. My friend Nicole lived beside me and started to bring me to church when I was about six. I've been there ever since and wouldn't change a thing. My dad and sister are Christians too and I had an uncle called Roy who was a Christian. He passed away with cancer about eight years ago. I can remember sitting around a family kitchen table singing Christian songs with him. That influence has been there since a young age.
Q. Do any of your church friends also play football?
A. My friend Caragh Milligan plays for Glentoran and she's in Iceland at the minute. She's in the Northern Ireland squad as well and it was great having here there for the senior camp in Slovakia because she was constantly looking after me. Everyone calls me her 'mini me' so we already had that bond. She would always text me to see how I am getting on.
Q. Are there any complications surrounding your faith and football?
A. No, it drives me on because God calls us to be the best that we can be and to use our talents to the best of our ability. I know he's given me a talent for a reason, it's not by coincidence. I'm giving him glory. Big crowds won't faze me because I know who I'm playing for. The church is a massive part of my life too but I train on Sunday mornings so it's not ideal. I have a youth group on a Friday night and I try to make it to church on a Sunday night. I love the fellowship, it's so lively and my friends are fantastic, always cheering me on and it's great that they can see God in everything that I do. That's the aim, to show people it's not about me, it's about God. Sunday is flat out with training and church but I wouldn't have it any other way.
Q. You've talked about the support you've had which is fantastic but have you ever encountered any negativity?
A. Some of the negative comments I try to take on the chin. I haven't received too many but the boys used to give me stick for playing. I've heard people say girls shouldn't be playing football but it's what I want to do, what they think doesn't matter. I know there's a purpose and I'm playing football for a reason. The negative comments won't break my heart. I play football because I enjoy it and I always want to make myself better.
Q. Have you found it difficult to balance studies with football commitments?
A. I got good results in my GCSEs and one of my teachers said I was probably the most successful pupil of that year, not because I got straight A stars but because I could balance studies with football. I wanted to give my all to both. It was about finding that happy balance.
Q. Some of the girls have pursued their careers outside Northern Ireland and secured professional contracts. Would you have a similar ambition?
A. It's coming to the time when I might go to university. It would be my dream to play in England professionally but I know that whatever happens is all part of a plan and where I'm destined to be I will be in the future. Whatever the 'big man' has planned, that's where I'll be. I'm excited about the future but I'm nowhere near the finished article.
Q. How welcoming were your team-mates in the senior squad?
A. I was nervous because I was meeting a new group, but knowing people like Lauren Perry, who is also with Linfield Ladies, and Caragh - two of my best friends - really helped me settle. I had already worked with Noel and Alfie. I had something to prove but they would never have picked me if they felt I wasn't good enough.
Q. At the age of 16 years, seven months and 11 days you made your Northern Ireland debut in a World Cup qualifier against Slovakia. What was that like?
A. It was unreal. I was nervous because it was going to be another massive step up but the girls made sure I didn't worry, they told me to play like I normally do and everything would be okay. When the game started it was just another match. I should have scored, though... I had a chance which was harder to miss.
Q. Do you feel the women's game here is developing quickly?
A. If you said 10 years ago women's football here would be as big as it is I would never have believed you. It has developed so much thanks to coaches who are driving things forward. The game is more competitive with teams from Strabane and Derry involved. It's exciting to see the game grow. The Under-19 finals has inspired other girls to play the game.
Q. Which players do you admire?
A. Simone Magill because she's from Northern Ireland and played for Mid-Ulster before coming through to play in England professionally with Everton Ladies. You can see how well she has done to make a career for herself in England. The best player I've played with could be Rachel Furness. Playing alongside Sarah McFadden on my debut was unreal because she has so much experience, more than 50 caps.
Q. Where is your game at the moment?
A. I'm playing for Linfield Under-17s in the winter league. I captain the team and we are unbeaten. We are a very close-knit team and it's a privilege to captain them, and the good thing is my fitness won't drop for the new season in April.
Q. Do you want to go to university?
A. It hasn't really entered my mind yet but if it happens I could go to England. Career-wise, I want to do something active. I couldn't do a desk job.
Q. Have you ever been hit with a bad injury or illness?
A. When I was a kid I had reflux and was sick in my sleep. It wasn't nice but I'll not go into the details! Fortunately I grew out of that. I've never had a serious injury or illness but I believe there's protection around me.
Q. The girls don't earn money unless they have professional contracts. Are you envious of the money the men earn?
A. I genuinely just love the game. My mum would shout at me for running around the house with a football. I just love playing because it gets your head away from daily problems and school work. If you asked the girls who are paid, they would say they would still play if there was no financial reward. I have that attitude. The girls don't talk about money. It's the least of my worries. Our motivation is a love of the game. If I want to earn money I'll go and get a part-time or full-time job.
Q. What music are you into?
A. I love listening to music and always have my earphones in. I listen to Justin Bieber and saw him in concert in Dublin... I cried. He was so good, it was unbelievable.
Q. What are your hopes for 2018?
A. Last year will be hard to beat but I'd like to win more trophies with Linfield and I believe we can. We want to win the league three years in a row. The Champions League will be exciting as well and I'd like to make more Northern Ireland appearances, both for the seniors and Under-19s.
Date of birth: April 17, 2001
Place of birth: Belfast
Previous clubs: Northland Raiders, Dungoyne Boys, Ards Rangers
Linfield Ladies record: 44 appearances, 21 goals
International Ireland appearances: One (vs Slovakia, World Cup qualifier, November 2017)