In Playing with the Boys, Niamh McKevitt details her incredible, and often amusing, journey growing up as the sole girl playing in a boy’s league. With the book now available in our store, Lucy Manley talked with Niamh to get her take on the differences between playing with boys and girls, the current state of the game, and what could still be improved…
Ask Niamh (pronounced “Nieve”) how she ended up with the boys, and she will tell you it was never a choice between boys or girls, but rather the desire “to be playing at the highest standard I could”, and make the next “step up” in the game. While this has recently led her to shift her attentions to the highest ranks of the women’s game, joining Huddersfield Town in the FA WPL North (a feeder league to WSL2), she spent the first part of her football career competing in the top division of her local boys junior league. Here, despite some initial apprehension from her new teammates, she quickly found herself accepted as her talent at left-back became apparent: “the boys wanted you in the team, regardless of whether you were a boy or girl”.
As she developed, Niamh did occasionally experience girl’s football, especially as she approached the FA’s cut-off ages for mixed teams. Happily for Niamh, these were continually reviewed and shifted throughout her career and, as of the current season, mixed teams are allowed until the age of 18. Given her experience in both environments, Niamh is well-placed to highlight some of the differences between the relative styles of boys and girls football. One of the clearest contrasts was in training – while girls treated training as a chance to develop, “for the boys, it may as well have been the FA Cup Final”, such was their competitive nature. On the flip side, Niamh highlights the greater emphasis on technique and tactics in the girl’s game, praising the high level of coaching (typically with coaches near UEFA B standard) that she had at spells with Derby County and Sheffield United.
In her eyes, both sides could learn from one another. She agrees with the assessment of Faye White, her role model and ex-England captain, who once said “you can tell which girls have played mixed football, as there is more desire” – having seen her own role transform from being one of the quieter members on the pitch in the boy’s game to being “one of the mouthiest girls on the team”; to both teammates and referees alike! Yet, by her own admission, at full-back she is a stopper, and doesn’t see herself playing with the finesse shown by some of her peers in the women’s game. Ultimately, Niamh thinks that both approaches carry their virtues and (in case the FA is reading!) argues greater integration between boys and girls at younger ages could encourage this balanced development.
When asked about the current state of women’s football, Niamh is confident that perceptions of the game are heading in the right direction, especially following this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. For her, “people want to support a team that’s doing well and they want to support England – and if they want to get both of these things, then that’s the England Women’s team”.
The recent tournament brought unprecedented success and attention to an English team, who, going into the tournament, were somewhat of an underdog. And, after a heart-breaking semi-final, the Lionnesses even overcame the curse of the Germans, with Fara Williams scoring from the spot in extra time to earn England the bronze medal. From heartbreak to triumph; the women’s team made history and put women in football right where it should be – in the spotlight. The team returned home as heroes and role models to both girls and boys around the country and Niamh saw the shifts in perceptions first-hand. Firstly, she was bemused by the boys at school now asking her all about the players (not least Lucy Bronze after her stunning goal vs. Norway), but admits that she’d been trying for years to get them interested beforehand! She also sees that “young girls are [being] inspired, they see it’s something women can do and that it is a women’s sport”. In the media as well, it appears that the sport, so often male-dominated, is finally starting to get the recognition it deserves, a stepping stone in the right direction for our national sport.
What’s still needed?
However, Niamh still believes that more can be done to maintain and build on the new interest levels of women’s football. She thinks that newspapers and other media channels continue to underestimate the potential interest in the game: “they think there is no want for content, but there is pent up desire, just no outlet for it”. As for the Women’s Super League, she believes more can still be done to improve the accessibility of the product – firstly, with advertising the current matches and then with adapting the schedule to become more consistent, with fewer weekends off and reducing the mid-season break. But she recognises its potential, noting that “what will determine how much the sport grows is the WSL and the European leagues, how well they are publicised and our future successes at World Cups.”
Niamh also thinks the success will be driven to an extent by the league’s ability to generate world-class, superstar players – those such as Alex Morgan today, and Mia Hamm for past generations. She recognises the success that FIFA has made with this on the men’s side and sees it as a channel to grow the women’s game globally, both commercially and to encourage fresh participation. So, who are Niamh’s big three Lionnesses? After some reflection, she decides on Jill Scott, Fara Williams and Casey Stoney today, but also recognises the impact that Kelly Smith and Faye White had on her career, admitting that she idolised the pair since Primary School, where she used to write biographies of them.
What does the future hold… and a trip down memory lane
In 2012, Niamh hypothesised that she would “never play professionally in front of 50,000 people” – but is she now reconsidering this? While admitting the future is bright for the sport, and particularly the WSL, Niamh says she hasn’t yet given much thought to a possible career in football. For now, her attentions are set on developing her game with Huddersfield Town, earning a scholarship to play college soccer in the US and, let’s not forget, celebrating the publishing of her first book at the tender age of 16!
As we conclude, we asked Niamh for a few of her best memories with the boys. Firstly, she told us about scoring a rare goal to complete a hard-fought 3-3 comeback in the cup quarter-final – and the resulting awkward moment as the boys considered a massive hug before resorting to a more conservative high-five (although we suggested the bowling ball celebration may have been a better compromise…). And then there are great moments that you can only get by being a girl in a boy’s game. In a tale from tour, Niamh chuckles as she recounts her colourfully-worded suggestion to a poor lad, having just dived in front of her that he might want to get up... “I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was right in front of all the watching teams… let’s just say, he won’t be diving again any time soon!”
And, lucky for Niamh, neither will her new opponents.
Lucy Manley is a Soccerella Ambassador, MSc Sport and Health Science student and enjoys following a range of sports… with a minor obsession for all things ‘Olympics’. In her blog, ‘More than just a game’, she looks critically at a range of sporting topics associated with professional athletes and mass participation. Twitter: @Lucy_Manley
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