Sunday 25 February 2018

'We have proved what women's football can achieve'

Niamh Reid tells Aisling Crowe of the commitment behind Raheny Utd's success

Niamh Reid is looking forward to facing some of Europe's best players. Picture credit: Piaras O Midheach / SPORTSFILE
Niamh Reid is looking forward to facing some of Europe's best players. Picture credit: Piaras O Midheach / SPORTSFILE

Aisling Crowe

The young boys knocking on the door of the Reid family home in Clonsilla, asking if Niamh could join in their football games, recreating their icons' moves, dreaming of glory, probably never imagined that the girl in goals would be the one to make it to the Champions League.

Last week that's exactly what the 23-year-old did as part of the Raheny United team which made history in Romania. The reigning league champions became the first Irish team to top a Champions League qualifying group, and with a perfect record. The girl, who all the boys wanted on their team, was integral to that triumph.

The effervescent goalkeeper is the foundation on whom Raheny's success is built. A former Irish international diver as a teenager, the agility honed in the National Aquatic Centre has helped her team to back-to-back league titles, the 2013 FAI Women's Cup and now the biggest stage of all. "I try to be nice to the defence most of the time," she confides, the humour evident in her bright voice. "They do a lot of work but it is nice to hear them saying that they would trust me with their lives."

That bond connecting the Raheny defence and goalkeeper has been forged in a pressure-cooker environment. Raheny were not expected to win their opening group game in Romania. Pitted against the top seeds and hosts, Olympia Cluj, and ranked third themselves, Reid and her defence withstood a bombardment to upend preconceived notions.

Women defying expectations has been the trademark of this sporting summer. From the women's rugby team becoming the first Irish international team to beat New Zealand to the U-19 soccer team's run to the European championship semi-final and Fionnuala Britton's 10th-place finish in her first marathon at the European Athletics Championships, Ireland's sporting heroes have actually been heroines.

Reid and her Raheny team-mates are part of that group now and she hopes their success will encourage more support of women in sport.

"We have proved to the FAI what women's football can achieve so hopefully they can invest more in the sport and maybe even look at a semi-pro league in the future.

"I know there is a huge amount of work going on in the background, but the staff involved in women's football are mostly volunteers and without them the sport would be on the floor," she adds.

Juggling sport, career and life, as Ireland's women sports stars must do, is no easy task. Reid's commitment to her craft has come at a cost to her fledgling professional career. A recent graduate of IT Blanchardstown, securing a first-class honours degree in Sports Management and Coaching, Reid has been turned down for jobs at interviews because prospective employers don't want to facilitate her football.

Her plan is continue with her part time job in Nando's restaurant while saving towards studying for a master's in Sport Nutrition next year.

The former St Mochta's player was awarded a unique honour two years ago when selected to be an Olympic torch-bearer when the flame came to Dublin in 2012. A privilege indeed but also a little problem.

"My mam didn't realise that we could take the torch home afterwards. We were at a special dinner that night hosted by the Lord Mayor and I was a bit starstruck because the room was full of famous athletes.

"After dinner we had to walk through town, me carrying my Olympic torch and wearing the Olympic relay gear. We were mobbed. People kept stopping us and asking to take photos so we eventually had to find a shop that sold black bags and we put the torch in one and got quickly to Tara Street station," she laughs.

Internationally, Reid is the understudy to Arsenal's Emma Byrne, who looks set to win her 110th cap in Wednesday night's World Cup qualifier against Slovenia. Reid is hoping to oust Byrne from that position but in the meantime there is the small matter of a draw on Friday morning that demands her attention.

Giants of European football lie in wait for Raheny in Geneva. Barcelona, Liverpool and defending champions Wolfsburg are all potential opponents for October's two-legged knockout tie. Reid is caught between two opinions on that, but her logic is as sure as her goalkeeping.

"If we got an easier team, it's still no guarantee that we would get through. Playing the bigger teams would give us the chance to discover where we are and where we need to go. It would be daunting, but bring it on."

The courage honed on the pitch, facing up to boys faster and stronger than her is evident, and Europe's aristocrats are just another opponent to be tackled.

"Hopefully we have shown that we are not here to make up the numbers. We wanted to make history, that was our ambition and we proved we can."

It sums up not just Raheny's summer but that of sport for women in Ireland. Reid speaks for herself and for every girl who has ever dreamed of sporting glory.

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