Football/Soccer

Finnegan ready to be part of sister act for Northern Ireland women at Euros

Toni-Leigh Finnegan celebrates after Northern Ireland secured their place at next month's Women's Euros.
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

International soccer friendly: Belgium v Northern Ireland (Herman Vanderpoortenstadion, Lier, 7pm BST)

ALTHOUGH she's still a teenager, Toni-Leigh Finnegan is keen to seize her moment and ensure she travels to the Women's Euros with Northern Ireland.

Some of those assured of their places in the squad are, ahem, experienced enough to be the 19-year-old's mother - but perhaps it's telling that she regards them more as sisters.

"I think we'd say 'sisters'!," she insists with a laugh. "They'd probably crack up if we said mothers.

"They really are like our sisters on and off the pitch and we can go to them when we want - there is so much love in the squad for each other."

Indeed NI captain Marissa Callaghan has been encouraging Finnegan's football for almost a decade now: ""Marissa coached me when I was a kid. I was 10 years of age playing for Cliftonville when she was coaching me.

"Even off the pitch she was always looking out for me and she helped me right through from the Excellence Programme to Under-15s, Under-16s, Under-17s, right through to senior level. To be playing alongside her now is amazing."

Yet although Callaghan has been a mentor and a role model, Finnegan has no qualms about shouting at the captain during matches, if need be: "No, I've been a senior now for two years, so I think I'm used to that now."

Another opportunity may present itself for the Cliftonville defender/ midfielder to impress this evening when Kenny Shiels's players take on Belgium in Lier, near Antwerp. The hosts, who are ranked 19th in the world and 11th among European teams (compared to NI's 47th and 28th positions), are in Group D at the Euros, alongside France, Italy, and Iceland.

West Belfast girl Finnegan is aware of the tough tests ahead, not just this evening: "We are going to the Euros to play against the 15 best teams in Europe. We know it's going to be difficult but we've been training really hard and putting in the work to match them when we get there."

However, she's often had to prove herself, as she recalls: "I play for Cliftonville but I'm from the Falls Road. I played a wee bit of Gaelic football growing up but at the minute, I'm focused on my football and there are a lot more opportunities in football.

"I actually grew up playing for Willowbank boys' team and if it wasn't for them I wouldn't be here today - they turned me into the player I am now. It's an amazing club.

"Growing up at 10 or 11 there weren't many girls' clubs and my mum and I were talking to Marissa and she got me to the Cliftonville girls' team.

"Playing with the boys was always good and I think it made me a lot more physical as a player and more aggressive."

Despite her desire to play her part at Euro 2022 in England, she feels she will have other opportunities in the future:

"It's always good craic and it's good coming through at this young age because you can see how big the women's game is becoming in Northern Ireland and really all over the world.

"Coming in at this young age we are getting the start of that and playing alongside the older players like Marissa [Callaghan] and Julie [Nelson], they are our role models and we all look up to them.

"They have been through so much. They've done really well to get to where we are now and this is the biggest moment of their careers as well as ours.

"For some of the younger ones, our careers are only starting and we hope to look forward to times like this in the future as well as now."

Further into the future, Toni-Leigh is setting her sights on playing club football in England or Scotland. Her appetite has been whetted by being part of the Northern Ireland training camp at Newforge in Belfast:

"I'd love to get the chance to play across the water because our clubs here are not full-time at the minute.

"To have a taste of that full-time environment for the past six months at Newforge, because we've been full-time since January, I wouldn't want that to end. I'd love to do that as a career."

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