Maeve Williams, goalkeeper for Wexford Youths and Republic of Ireland U-19s talks about what she’s learned from the game, improving the pathway to elite football for young girls and what it takes to compete with the best.
Football means everything to me. It’s taught me a lot too.
I was supposed to be doing my Leaving Cert this year. Teachers were keeping on top of things; we were building towards the exams in midsummer then the news came that there wouldn’t be a Leaving Cert.
For me it was a matter of getting the exams out of the way. To be honest, sport has always taken top priority over school.
I’d been on Gaynor Cup squads in Waterford since I was 12, so I always held out hope for a trial with a national league club. After under-16 Gaynor Cup competition, football more or less ends for most girls. Unless you’re selected by a club in the national leagues, the options are limited.
I was lucky enough that my club, Ferrybank AFC, had a girls’ team for me to play on all the way up to under-16 level. From there, I was picked up by Wexford Youths.
I started when I was four. My dad was involved. My older brother played. I made friends, I’d great coaches. I joined the girls’ team at under-12. We won leagues and cups. I know I was lucky to be part of that group. It is literally the luck of the draw, how many girls your age were into playing soccer determined whether or not you would have a team to play with.
Right now, there is no girls team in the club – just mixed football up to under-11s. I’m doing my best to help out coaching the academies on Saturday mornings, and encouraging some of the young girls to stick at it.
”When they ask, “Will there be a girls’ team for me to play on?” I don’t have an answer for them.
You can’t blame the club for that either. As communities we need do a better job of showing young girls the enjoyment and other benefits you can get from playing soccer, being part of a team and a club. There are too many ways for girls to drop out of sport, so encouragement is everything. I try to do my bit in the Ferrybank academy in a small corner of Waterford but it’s a national task.
Volunteering at the academy is the least I can do. I feel like I owe the club so much. Coming up along, I always felt like I had more to play for and more to work for. It kept me motivated. If that wasn’t there, I don’t know what I’d be doing now.
There are lots of girls that want to take the journey but there just isn’t an obvious pathway, starting at the local club that leads all the way to the top senior levels.
If you can’t see the path, you’re not going to take the path.
At Ferrybank I grew up looking at the Republic of Ireland jerseys on the wall belonging to players of the past from our club. Players like John O’Shea. I always dreamed of getting the chance to play for my country and bring my jersey back to the club.
Last year, I got called up by Colin Bell the Republic of Ireland U-17s manager. I made my international debut against Iceland in Reykjavik in February 2019.
Every footballer dreams of playing for their country. It’s not long ago I was watching internationals on TV and thinking, “Could that be me one day?”. Then, there I was lining up in the arena in Iceland with Amhrán na bhFiann blaring. I was trying to focus on getting my head ready for the game, but the whole occasion was so incredible. It was surreal.
”I brought my match jersey down to the club. It’s up on the wall now.
I’ve never been short of role models in football. My dad coached me at Ferrybank, so he had a massive influence on me. As a keeper I look up to players like Shay Given, Darren Randolph, and Emma Byrne. Obviously, John O’Shea is a club hero. His mam and my nanny are bestos. I coached his young fella in the club summer camps.
I had a poster of the Republic of Ireland national women’s team on my wall. When I joined Wexford Youths, I thought it best to take the poster down since I would be playing against most of them.
It’s exciting to see the kind of profile that our women’s footballers are getting. Seeing Tallaght Stadium packed for internationals. Names like Katie McCabe, Rianna Jarrett, Louise Quinn, Stephanie Roche, and Claire Shine being recognised.
We won the FAI Cup Final in the Aviva Stadium last year. As I was leaving the field a young girl in the stand called my name and asked me for my gloves. She might have just picked me out from the programme, but it was such a cool moment.
There are young girls showing up to training with “McCabe” on the back of their jerseys.
Despite the setback of the Covid-19 crisis, it’s an amazing time to be involved in football.
I know that playing can’t last for ever, but I always want to be involved in football in one way or another. I can’t wait to see where that journey takes me.
I always enjoyed school but, once I got into transition year, I realised that all I wanted to do was play football.
Around the same time, Wexford Youths came calling. It was a brilliant opportunity for me. Another major step on the pathway.
My school friends have always been so supportive of me, even if sometimes it feels like I live a completely different life. I remember getting called up to Ireland camp and my friend said, “but we have a biology test on Wednesday!” It’s two different worlds.
In football, I just love the team environment. For me it’s about sharing the experiences and the moments, win or lose. It’s easy to share the joy when you win, but when you lose, it helps that the girls in the circle with you on the pitch are going through the same emotions and understand the hurt. It’s a special bond. We’re a family. We’re 100% committed to each other.
Sport has been such a huge benefit to the development of my mental health too. Once you get out training or playing matches you can literally switch off from anything else that might be going on.
I like to think of myself as mentally strong. I won’t be found lacking for motivation. I believe in staying ahead. I want to be the hardest worker in the room. I don’t have any God given talent, what I have, I worked for. Whatever it is, you have to want it more than the other person. Nothing will ever be handed to you. It’s about having a strong work ethic.
Football taught me that.
Maeve Williams is an ambassador for Azzurri Sport. Over the last two months, Azzurri has been manufacturing and donating thousands of face masks to front line workers and at-risk members of the public in the fight against Covid-19. If you want to help to keep this initiative going you can donate at the below link.
If you enjoyed Maeve’s piece you might like to read Clare Shine’s – “Advice For My Younger Self”
The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.
Subscribe today for more.