It’s spring in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland. Cloudy, windy, cool. It could rain and it still wouldn’t matter to this bunch of mini-football participants, ruddy-cheeked from the exertion. All they can see is that football and all they want to do is play. She’s immediately noticeable in her full Man Utd kit, in and out of focus among all the boys, just four years old. Her older brother, Kris, plays every Saturday and one weekend, this little girl decided that she wanted to go too. She doesn’t remember too much of those early days, but she does know for certain that it’s where her love for football started.
“I knew very early on that I wanted to be a footballer. That’s all I ever wanted to do.”
That four-year-old was Simone Magill, currently plying her trade as a full-time professional footballer for Everton Ladies, and she knew right then that she wanted to play football for the rest of her life. Which six-year-old knows what they want to do, you’d say. I’d ask, how many five-or-six-year-olds do you know with a determination to learn ‘how to be a better footballer’? Simone went to Kris, wise in his 10-11 years, and asked her brother for help. One particular incident sticks in her memory even now –
“I remember him trying to teach me how to hit the ball first time, aged 5/6 I couldn’t grasp the concept and so I continued to every time take a touch and pass it back. I could see my brother getting so frustrated, it was quite funny actually.”
Throughout much of her childhood, Simone would remain one of the only girls playing with the boys, drawing funny looks that soon stopped when they saw she could play. In Magherafelt, or even in the rest of Northern Ireland, there weren’t many girls teams around in those days, and the only way a girl could play the sport was if she joined the boys team. So, apart from mini-football on a Saturday morning, Simone played for the boys school team in primary, content with just being able to play the game she loved.
I ask Simone how she kept herself motivated back then when it must have been so much more difficult, and her answer’s simple.
“When I was a kid I just loved playing, that kept me going alone, I just loved it.”
It’s a love that was and still is clearly strong; it had to be. Overpowering doubts or disbelief from the surroundings, at a time when “female footballer” was nowhere near a viable, feasible career path. Love accompanied by determination, dedication, hard work for all the years that Simone had no way of knowing that being a full-time professional was a possibility one day. Back then, all she had was that love, a love that meant she played for two teams between the ages of ten and fifteen.
The first year in those famed, much desired for double digits, is an exciting age marker in any pre-adolescent’s life. It would be a year of firsts for the young Magherafelt resident. She joined Cookstown Youth FC (boys) which was her first taste of playing 11-a-side. Simone, always hungry for more chances to play, also simultaneously joined Mid-Ulster Ladies U13s, her first experience of female teammates. Her schedules never clashed since the boys played in the winter and the girls in the summer. In the meantime, she had also made the Northern Ireland U13 squad at the age of 11, and would go on to captain the U17 and U19 squads, squeezing in her senior debut in between at the age of 15!
It wasn’t until she turned 18, after finishing her A-Levels that Simone’s attention turned overseas. If she wanted to progress in her career and continue to challenge herself, moving to a place like England was the only option out of a bunch of limited ones. So she moved 279.69 kilometres as the crow flies to start a new chapter. Little did anybody know, much rather Simone herself, that just four years later, she would be the second Everton Ladies player to sign a full-time contract with the club. She was travelling towards one dream, unaware that another was just around the corner.
Pause a minute to consider the history surrounding women’s football in the north-west of England. Lancashire and Merseyside are neighbouring counties. The city of Liverpool, Everton’s home-base, is only half an hour away by car from Preston, about 70 minutes by train. Even though Everton Ladies play their home games at the now Select Security Stadium in nearby Widnes, their men’s team still play at Goodison Park, the site of Dirk, Kerr Ladies’ historic moments. There is enough local and geographical context even without Simone having studied at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, the next town over from St. Helens where Lily Parr and future Dick, Kerr Ladies captain, Alice Woods were from and are now buried. Decades separate these two and their peers from those that form part of their history, even though many don’t know it. When asked if there was a lot of awareness about the past, and whether it was necessary, Simone was quick to reply,
“I think this is something that people don’t know an awful lot about to be honest, it is definitely something that could be improved. I know there was a recent TV show on about the history of our game, perhaps more work like this could be done to improve everyone’s knowledge.”
Past knowledge or not, it makes for a nice point of reference, of a link to a communal history. Aren’t the best stories about connections unknown and then discovered, delightfully stumbled upon? Simone, then, spent three years in a town surrounded by the legacy of the Dick, Kerr Ladies, while she juggled a semi-pro football career with Everton and degrees in Coach Education (BSc) and the just concluded Coach Education (MRes) at Edge Hill University. How did she do it? There’s a very modest undercurrent to her response, even as she’s proud of graduating with not one but two first-class degrees and an academic publication. It’s one thing being experienced at multitasking football and studies when on international duty (“I was always doing work on the plane, I still am today!”), and quite another to be a university student and simultaneously play and train week in, week out. Simone credits her own time management skills as well as all the help and support she received during her time at Edge Hill.
“Throughout Uni I guess I made the right choices, I managed my time very effectively and I also had great tutors who worked really well with me and my schedule.”
Simone also managed to find the time to work as a student guide and mentor while at the university, citing the importance of being involved in the Edge Hill community and giving back to a place she is still very passionate about (“In my eyes, it is the best university.”). During her second year, she was approached by Onside Sports Education, a Lancashire-based Registered Training Provider who deliver courses throughout the North-West, who asked her to be their ambassador. They put her through different training courses including Fitness Instructor Level 2, Personal Training Level 3 and an FA Level 2 coaching badge. Through all of this, this self-professed laid-back girl was still attending training and playing for Everton Ladies. And not just playing, but playing well.
In 2012, around the time Simone first joined the club, the FA WSL (Football Association Women’s Super League) was one season old, and Everton, one of the eight founders of the league, had managed the first of two third place finishes. Women’s football in the UK was in a phase of transition, an exciting and promising one at that if the signs were to be believed, and the FA to be trusted. But even before that, the Merseyside club’s legacy was a strong one. Starting out as Holylake FC in 1983, the Toffees would face a few more name changes before becoming Everton in 1995. They won their first Women’s Premier League in 1998, and would consistently keep pace with the dominant women’s team of the 90s and early naughties, the Arsenal Ladies, with 5 consecutive second place finishes in the league, and even a 2010 FA Cup final victory over their rivals. Simone, however, had more compelling reasons to join the Blues.
“When making the decision on which club to go to, Everton stood out from the others; they were always renowned for playing their youth, and as a kid making the move, I wanted to go somewhere where I could play. The club’s ethos, values and philosophy is second to none. I knew very early on that Everton was a great club, the people’s club, and I was delighted to be a part of that.”
It’s a decision she wouldn’t regret, even after their 2014 relegation to the newly-formed Women’s Super League 2, after a combined 21 seasons in first the Premier League, then the WSL. Simone got the chance to help Everton to a Spring Series win in 2017 (her first ever title), and a return to the top flight under unexpected circumstances (Notts County, one of the WSL 1 clubs, folded earlier this year and the FA invited replacement bids which Everton won), a return that was followed up with the club’s immediate shift to a full-time status and a full-time professional contract for the 22-year-old.
The years in between were a mixed bag for Simone. 2014 in particular was a bittersweet year. Disappointment against Arsenal Ladies in the FA Cup final and relegation was offset by being able to actually play in a Cup final when just the year before she had been watching it on the telly at home with her parents. There was also the small matter of being awarded the fans player of the season that year (“Our fans are fantastic and to be recognised by them was a very nice feeling.”).
In June 2016, she would also bag another unexpected honour – the world record for the fastest women’s international goal. Playing against Georgia, Simone scored Northern Ireland’s opener within only 11 seconds, an achievement she dubs “pretty cool” in her wonderfully understated style. The previous record was by USA’s Alex Morgan (12 seconds) at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
But that was also the game she suffered a concussion that kept her out of the sport for about 5 months, and as you talk to her more, you get the feeling that even though all these awards and accolades are happily and gratefully appreciated, it’s the football, and the chance to be better and play as part of the club she loves, that matters more in the end. It’s the chance to keep playing the game she loves. That’s when she gets really excited and passionate.
“I’ve been at Everton going in 5 years now. I’ve got to play alongside some world class players and work with fantastic coaches throughout my time here and I’ve been able to develop my game significantly. I was delighted to be a part of that (her first title, the 2017 WSL 2 Spring Series). I am hopeful that there will be many more successful days at Everton.”
As the first Northern Ireland female footballer to sign a full-time contract with a Premier League team, it’s not a stretch to say that Simone will be one of the role-models for aspiring young footballers; something that was in short supply when she was growing up. When asked about her footballing idols, the Manchester United fan names David Beckham and Andy Cole. Now, the younger crop of girls playing football right from the grassroots up will have the example of someone like Simone, of hopefully many others to come, across the United Kingdom, as inspiration on how to make it, even if to just show that it’s possible.
And whether she knows it or not, Everton and Northern Ireland’s number 10 is already part of a Magherafelt footballing legacy that stretches all the way back to the 1900s. The town’s given birth to Peter Dermot Doherty and Henry “Harry” Gregg, both former Northern Ireland internationals who have also played in England. Peter Doherty, who passed away 4 years before Simone was born, is widely considered as one of the top players of his time – he won a league title with Manchester City, played and managed Doncaster Rovers during the club’s most successful era while he simultaneously managed Northern Ireland (leading them to their highest achievement of reaching the World Cup quarterfinals in 1958), and was one of 22 players in the first group to be inducted into the English Football Players Hall of Fame. Henry, on the other hand, played for Simone’s favourite club under Sir Matt Busby and is a Munich survivor who went on to play for and manage other clubs.
This is the sense of history, of stories and connections that binds us all together, even if we don’t know it. And yet, we do feel this underlying sense of collective association. How else to explain a sense of place and belonging and community, and the emotional pull it exerts? For Simone, some of her favourite memories will always be from representing her country, thriving off being underdogs, travelling across Europe and facing world-class teams and oppositions.
“Representing Northern Ireland is the greatest honour I’ve ever had; for me there’s no better feeling than wearing the green shirt.”
And of course there’s the sense of wonder that doesn’t seem to have really sunk in, that she is a professional footballer, and is able to do what she loves on a daily basis, focusing only on her training and fitness, and, I should add, her coffee – she confesses to being a “coffee geek” who brews homemade coffee and wants to open her own coffee shop once she’s done with the football!
“It’s incredible that I can say I play football for a living now. I’m most excited about being able to, for the first time in my career, focus solely on football. Everything in my lifestyle will be centred around making me a better football player and I’m really excited about that.”
Simone’s positive about all the developments in the women’s game in the UK (“I think the game’s headed in a very good direction. It’s a fantastic time to be a part of the game.”) and the exponential increase in media exposure and coverage. Match attendances, while nowhere close to the numbers of the men’s game, are steadily improving, and the FA seems to be focused on increasing interest and opportunities among what is rightly considered as their prime demographic for the women’s game – the young girls. There’s clearly a lot to look forward to and it’s great to see players like Simone in the mix – passionate, dedicated, hard-working. It’s also inspiring to see the pure, unadulterated love for the game that kept them going and allowed them to get this far to be able to finally start reaping some well-deserved benefits.