Monday, 26 January 2015

"You play for Ireland?"

I can’t remember a day of my entire childhood where I wasn’t kicking a football around, wearing a jersey or planning my future career as a professional soccer player. As a child, the dream was to wear the green jersey. Not a shop-bought one, though – the real deal. The fact that I’m a girl was never an issue, nor did it ever hinder me in my ambitions on the pitch. So you can imagine my delight when I received "the call" for the first time.

I began playing soccer as soon as I could walk, and that is no exaggeration. My poor sister’s first word was “ball,” for God’s sake. My learning of the beautiful game first came from my two older cousins, male of course, who showed me no mercy despite the two and three year age gap between us. I then moved houses and a new neighbour (also two years my senior) became my mentor. He taught me every trick in the book and after five years of playing matches every single evening until dark, I earned my place on my first Gaynor Cup squad with South Munster.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Gaynor Cup, it’s the female version of the Kennedy Cup. And for those of you unfamiliar with both, it’s an annual soccer tournament with teams from every province competing in it, where trials are held in order to make the team. So this was some serious stuff for a thirteen year old, let me tell you.

The Gaynor Cup took place in the University of Limerick at the end of June every year. It was a weekend tournament, so I had experience of staying in Kilmurry Village long before I ever moved here for college. For the first two tournaments that I was at, I was very much a timid player that would be considered a substitute rather than one of the starting eleven. I had no confidence in myself as a player outside of my comfort zone (the Kerry league) and I was intimidated by the big names on my team, such as Clare Shine, Amy O’ Connor, and the likes.

However, things changed dramatically in 2011. It was my third Gaynor Cup and for some reason beyond my recollection, the big names were never at training leading up to the tournament. That in itself gave me far more confidence in the build-up to the tournament because I was no longer intimidated at training sessions. June came, as did the opening match of the tournament. I believe it was the Midlands (or something to that effect) we were playing. All I need to tell you is I scored a hat-trick in the first half of that match and we went on to win the Gaynor Cup that year.

Within a matter of weeks I received a phone call from a member of the FAI with news that I had been selected to attend trials in Dublin for the Ireland U.17 women’s squad. Bear in mind I was fifteen years old at the time. I can still remember the moment I got the news. It was a dark, rainy evening but as soon as I heard, I darted out the conservatory door and ran two laps of the field in front of my house before texting every number in my contacts. I wasn’t excited or anything.

From there I secured a place on the U.17 squad heading to England at the end of August for a week’s training camp and two friendlies against England. It was hands down one of the coolest experiences of my life running onto that pitch wearing the number 17 jersey. I played left-midfield for Ireland, which was a position I was not accustomed to. Growing up I was always either centre mid or up front for Killarney Celtic, so it took a while to get used to my new position. Let me warn you, playing on the wings involves A LOT more running than you think. Than I thought, should I say.

Heading to Dublin for training camps became fairly routine from then on. Harry Kenny, the manager of the U.17s at the time, kept me on that squad because he “saw the potential in me” to be the starting left-midfielder when I was the right age. Roll on a year and I am the starting left-midfield for the U.16 team, playing against Arsenal Ladies, and then the U.17 team playing against Northern Ireland. I was at my ultimate level. Amy O’ Connor in right-mid, me in left-mid – there was no topping us. There was no-one my age in my position in the country that was faster than me, more skilful than me, fitter than me, a better goal-scorer than me; I was feared by every newcomer at every trial. I truly felt untouchable but remained modest at the same time. I prided myself on the fact that I never became an arrogant, cocky bitch, unlike some of the other girls I played alongside.

After the Gaynor Cup of 2012 it was announced that Harry Kenny would no longer be U.17 Head Coach. With cuts being made to the FAI’s budget, of course it had to be taken out on the women’s teams. From then on, the U.17s would be managed by the U.19s coach, Dave Connell. Now at this stage I had built up a pretty nice relationship with Harry. I liked Harry. Harry liked me. He had kept me under his wing and groomed me until I was ready to be unleashed. Unfortunately, I hadn’t a clue who Dave Connell was, nor did he have a clue who I was. This did not work in my favour at all, as you will realise shortly.

Nevertheless we regrouped in Dublin for another three-day training camp, expecting the same routine as always. Gear up, do a lengthy warm-up, a few drills and then full-length matches for the rest of the day. Oh, what a shock we got. Not only were we appointed a new Head Coach, we were also given the news that we would now be training alongside the U.19s. Let me inform you, the U.19s were a different breed. They were bigger, faster, stronger and a hell of a lot more aggressive than the U.17s.

We struggled on and it eventually became normal to train with the U.19s. It was mid-August and we were preparing for a UEFA qualifiers tournament in Macedonia (I think) in October, so there was a great buzz around the AUL Complex.

And then, one sunny Sunday afternoon, my international career came to an abrupt end. We had been doing some drills with the U.19s and in a bid to show I was unafraid and to impress my new manager, I lunged into a slide-tackle with one of the older girls. Needless to say play carried on but for me that was where it all fell apart. I lay on the ground in staggering pain while the physio and doctor rushed onto the pitch to me. They bandaged my ankle and laughed as they assured me I would be back up to training in two weeks, good as new. How wrong could they have been?

That day I tore both ligaments and tendons in my right ankle, meaning I was going to be out of action for a minimum of three months, depending on recovery speed, etc. I was devastated. To be so close to such an important tournament and having to watch as I was replaced on the squad list was torture. I had spent two and a half years travelling up and down to Cork every week for training and matches, going to the gym every other day, spending my parents’ money on trips to Dublin for training camps only to fall short at the final hurdle. It turns my stomach just thinking about it.

My recovery time was far longer than I had anticipated. In total, I was unable to play a full match for 12 months. Even when I was playing for the last twenty minutes of matches I was a shadow of the player I used to be. My ankle was not strong enough to shoot with the power it had in the past, and it also meant my speed and reflexes were greatly inhibited. Basically my overall performance was no longer good enough to play on the Irish team.

The last time I attended a trial in Dublin was this time two years ago. It had been over a year since the injury and I was invited up in the hope I had fully recovered. I had been handed a chance to reclaim my number 11 jersey but my ankle just wasn’t right. I lasted the trials, just about, but I didn’t receive another email after that. I knew what it meant. Managers like Dave Connell don’t wait around for players, they simply replace you. So I was replaced.

That’s the story of my time as an international soccer player. I’ll never forget that feeling when people asked “You play for Ireland?” Even today when I tell others of my glory days I feel pride when they proclaim “You used to play for Ireland?”

Yes, I used to play for Ireland. Yes, I miss playing for Ireland. No, I will never play for Ireland again.

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