In a week where Northern Ireland could well take a massive step towards their first ever Women’s Euros, LAUREN McCANN looks at the success of the Irish girls currently plying their trade on the mainland.
Women’s football in Northern Ireland has grown exponentially in recent years. The domestic game has gone from strength to strength, with last season the Danske Bank Women’s Premiership having its tightest title race in recent memory, whilst on the international stage the Northern Ireland women’s team under the management of Kenny Shiels are now on the verge of that history making European qualification.
It would be quite the feat considering that the Green and White Army have failed to ever make an appearance major international tournament, but suffice to say they certainly have a talented enough squad to create history in that a number of members of that squad are currently playing their football on mainland shores and are excelling in both England and Scotland’s top two divisions.
Here’s a lowdown of those Northern Irish players who are at clubs across the water:
Simone Magill – Everton
The most notable Northern Irish export, Cookstown native Magill recently featured in the Women’s FA Cup final which Everton lost to Man City. Although not the desired outcome, it marked another milestone in a remarkable career trajectory to date for the 26 year old.
The striker started out at local club Mid Ulster Ladies and took the league by storm, winning Northern Ireland Women’s Premier League Player of the Year in both the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, finishing top goal scorer in the second of those campaigns with 18 goals.
Then at just 18 years old, she went on trial with the Toffees and after impressing, sealed a switch to Merseyside in 2013, in time for their inaugural WSL Championship season.
Although she has suffered her fair share of injury problems in England, Magill has flourished since her move, winning Fans’ Player of the Year in 2014-15. She was sidelined for the majority of the following campaign but returned during the 2017 Spring Series in spectacular style, netting five goals in seven games as the Blues won
promotion to the top tier. That summer, Simone made history by becoming the first Northern Irish female footballer to sign a professional contract.
Her performances on the international stage have been equally impressive. Making her senior bow at just 15 years old, she has gone on to amass over 50 caps for her country, scoring eleven goals in the process with one of those strikes occurring, an eleven second goal against Georgia, breaking a world record for the fastest ever goal at international women's level in a European Qualifying match.
Rachel Furness – Liverpool
The hero in Minsk as Northern Ireland defeated Belarus, Rachel Furness’ header has propelled the Green and White army to within touching distance of securing a spot in the playoffs and a chance at qualification for Euro 2021.
It was the English born midfielder’s 28th international goal for her adopted homeland since making her debut in 2005, highlighting her knack of scoring crucial goals at crucial times for the side as well as her longevity.
The 32 year old is currently in the WSL 2 with Liverpool, who she joined in December last year after spells in the top flight with both Reading and Tottenham. She opted to stay with the Merseyside outfit despite their relegation and was named vice captain for their Championship campaign.
She picked up the club’s and league’s Player of the Month awards in September, and retained the club prize the following month having scored six goals in seven games so far this campaign, including a brace as the Reds beat Manchester United in the Continental Cup.
She will be hoping to continue her fine form for the duration of the campaign to help Liverpool’s promotion push as well as Northern Ireland’s charge to the Euro play offs.
Chloe McCarron – Birmingham City
The most recent player to swap the local women’s Premiership for football on the mainland, McCarron signed her first professional contract for WSL side Birmingham in August after three years at Linfield.
During her time at the club, who she joined after a spell at Mid Ulster Ladies, she helped the all conquering South Belfast side to three successive league title wins, as well as a Women’s Premiership Cup in 2018.
Equally adept at playing in holding or centre midfield, she won Linfield’s Player of the Year award in 2018-19 and featured in the Women’s Champions League during each of her three seasons with the Blues.
After a whirlwind transfer, she signed a two year deal with the Second City outfit and has slotted straight into the team, making four appearances so far in both the WSL and FA Cup.
The 22 year old has already established herself on the international stage winning seven caps since making her debut in 2015 against Scotland, playing the full 90 minutes in the recent victory over Belarus.
Sarah Robson – Durham Women
Captain of Northern Ireland in the win in Minsk, at 32 Robson is one of the veterans of Kenny Shiels’ team alongside the likes of Furness, having also made her debut in 2005. She has since won 68 caps, scoring five goals in the process and her experience is vital to the young squad.
Starting out at Moyola Park, the Magherafelt-born midfielder then made the switch to Ballymena before winning a scholarship to play ‘soccer’ at the University of Mississippi.
The jet-setting continued, with Robson then moving to Iceland for three years where she featured for both Fylkir and Grindavik, playing alongside international teammate Furness at the latter.
Both of them departed Grindavik in 2010 and signed for Sunderland, where Robson enjoyed a successful five year stint, helping the Black Cats to become thrice time Championship winners.
She left for fellow Championship outfit Durham at the start of 2016 and is still plying her trade in the north east, with Durham currently occupying top spot in the WSL 2 standings after a blistering start to the campaign.
Becky Flaherty – Sheffield United
A Scotland youth international, Becky switched allegiances and made her senior bow for Northern Ireland at last year’s Alanya Gold City Women’s Cup.
Having previously had stints at Merseyside duo Everton and Liverpool, Flaherty signed for the Blades in 2019 and established herself as their undisputed number one until a hip injury in January saw her season cut short.
She signed a new deal at the club this summer and after working her way back to fitness, is aiming to regain her starting spot between the sticks.
Nat Johnson – Sheffield United
Flaherty is joined at the Blades by international teammate Johnson after she made the switch from her hometown club Leicester in the summer having amassed over 100 appearances in two stints with the Foxes.
She won her first cap for Northern Ireland in March last year and previously spent time in the USA, playing college football at the University of South Carolina before returning to Leicester.
The versatile defender recently made her first start for Neil Redfern’s side in a 3-0 league win over Crystal Palace.
Lauren Wade – Glasgow City
We move up north to Scotland for the next number of entrees in our list, starting with 23 capped midfield Lauren Wade who moved to Champions Glasgow City in February this year.
Originally from Coleraine, Wade’s footballing career has already taken her across the globe from a stint playing college football in the USA to most recently helping Throttur Reykjavik to the second division title in Iceland.
Her most recent transfer has brought her closer to home and she made her debut before lockdown struck in a win against Celtic.
She went on to feature for City in the Women’s Champions League quarter final defeat to eventual runners up Wolfsburg, scoring a stunning consolation for the Scottish side as they exited the competition.
She has firmly established herself within the international set up, starting every one of Northern Ireland’s Euro 2021 qualifiers to date.
Megan Bell – Rangers
A product of Linfield’s academy, Bell first caught the eye when she scored twice as a 14 year old on her senior debut for the Blues in a 6-1 win over Sion Swifts.
A vital cog in the middle of the park, Bell helped the Belfast Big Two giants to three consecutive league title wins between 2016-18, before sealing a switch to England.
She signed for Durham last summer, in a move which coincided with her starting a degree at the nearby Durham University. She was an instant hit in the north east, playing 14 games in her first half season at the club, before she was off again to pastures new.
She put pen to paper on a professional deal with Glasgow giants Rangers and again netted on her competitive debut, scoring twice in a 3-0 win over Hearts. She has continued her fine goal scoring form for the Gers, going on to notch four in her next three games for the side before the league was curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic.
She is now back in full training after struggling with injury and will be hoping to help Rangers wrestle the SWPL crown from Glasgow City, who have won the title 13 years on the bounce.
Having won her first cap for Northern Ireland aged 16, she has made 15 further appearances for the senior side, including lining out against the current European champions the Netherlands in a packed out Philips Stadium in 2018.
Demi Vance – Rangers
In moving to Rangers Bell would link up with international teammate Demi Vance who signed an 18-month contract with the club last December.
The 28-year-old defender joined the Glasgow outfit after impressing with local side Glentoran, whom she had played for since the age of 16 and had won a staggering 19 trophies.
In her final season with the club Vance helped the East Belfast giants to a treble of domestic trophies namely the Irish Cup, the League Cup and the County Antrim Cup. Her vital individual contribution to the success of the team that year was recognised by the league as she was named Women’s Player of the Year for the second time in her career.
The allure of full time football persuaded Vance to make the switch and she has settled in well to life in Glasgow. Traditionally a midfielder, she has started this campaign at centre back for the Glasgow ‘gers but has already netted twice as they have won their opening four games.
Another ever present in the current Euro 2021 qualifying campaign, Vance has now clocked up over 60 appearances in green since making her first appearance at just 16-years-old.
Billie Simpson – Forfar Farmington
With Northern Irishman Ryan McConville having been appointed as their new manager earlier this year it’s probably little surprise than there has been something of a Northern Ireland revolution taking place at Scottish Women’s Premier League side Forfar Farmington with Simpson the first of a quarter of Green and White Army representatives in the east of Scotland to feature in this list.
Simpson joined the club last year after spending four fruitful years at Solitude with Cliftonville. During her time at the club she won the Footballer of the Year, Northern Ireland Women’s Football Personality of the Year and Northern Ireland Premier League Player of the Year as well as helping the Reds to win the League Cup in 2018.
Simpson hit the world headlines that same year after a breathtaking goal against Sion Swifts in which the defender scored with an outrageous 60 yard first time volley from inside her own half. The strike went v ral and later featured on Soccer AM as well as seeing her nominated for the 2019 FIFA Puskas Award for “the most beautiful goal of the season” where she went up against the likes of Messi and Ibrahimovic.
She has 12 Northern Ireland senior caps so far and will be hoping to build on her good start to life at Forfar to force her way back into Kenny Shiels’ plans.
Jade Lindsey – Forfar Farmington
A recent recruit, Coleraine native Lindsey made the switch to Forfar in February after four seasons with Hamilton in which she won a SWPL 2 title during her first year at the club.
After moving to Scotland during her teens, citing family reasons as the main driving factor, she joined Celtic before moving on to Queens Park and finally settling at the Accies.
It was whilst starring for the Lowlands club that she came to the attention of then Northern Ireland boss Alfie Wylie who handed her an international debut aged 21 against Switzerland in the European Qualifiers.
A nasty foot injury last year saw her miss a considerable chunk of the campaign and she left Hamilton by mutual consent in January before jumping up to the SWPL with Forfar the following month.
Having reached full fitness and now playing regularly in a more competitive league she is hoping, like Simpson, to catch the eye of former Derry City boss Shiels and add to her 15 caps to date for the Green and White Army.
Lauren Brennan – Forfar Farmington
Striker Brennan also joined Ryan McConville’s side earlier this year, arriving from Strabane outfit Sion Swifts back home.
The 25 year old started her career at the Swifts before moving abroad to play in Iceland with Grindavik. She then went down under for a spell in Australia which was unfortunately cut short by an ACL injury before returniing home for regular game time at Sion and in doing so earning a move back across the water at Forfar ahead of the new SWPL season.
She made her international debut in 2015 in a Euro qualifying game against Switzerland and current manager Kenny Shiels certainly rates the striker having named her in his first squad for a training camp back in June.
Lauren Perry – Forfar Farmington
One of a number of talented goalkeepers vying for the number one spot at international level, Perry burst onto the scene with a player of the match display on her debut against Norway aged just 16.
Various accolades would follow for the young stopper after impressive domestic performances at Linfield where, like many of those aforementioned, she helped the club to three league titles on the bounce and a League Cup success.
She won the Ulster Women’s Player of the Year, NIFWA Women’s Football Personality of the Year and NIFL Player of the Year awards before moving to Championship side Blackburn, starting a degree at the local university.
After a year in England she opted to move up north and join Farmington to reunite with a familiar face in boss McConville, her former coach at Linfield.
Still only 19 years of age, extremely young for a goalkeeper never mind an outfielder, Perry will hope to establish herself in Scotland and play regularly to increase her chances of becoming first choice for years to come with her country.
Tyler Toland – (Glasgow City, on loan from Manchester City)
The final inclusion in this list, Toland is actually a Republic of Ireland international becoming their youngest ever senior international in 2017, just 43 days after her 16th birthday.
She features in this list as spent time playing in the Northern Ireland Women’s Premiership with Sion Swifts having had a three year stint at the Strabane side, winning the IFA Challenge Cup in her first season at the club before Manchester City came calling last summer.
Toland signed a professional contract on her 18th birthday and days later scored her first senior goal for her country, the first of their European qualifying campaign, when she fired home against Montenegro in Tallaght.
A year on, she is currently on loan at Glasgow City after struggling with injury and finding minutes hard to come by in a star studded Manchester City team however she has made a good start to life in Scotland, scoring and winning the Player of the Match award in City’s 3-0 win over Motherwell which maintained their 100% record in the SWPL.