Growing the game, the snowball effect and Morgan's mentality - women's football on the rise

Alyssa Naeher
Naeher saved Steph Houghton's 83rd-minute penalty to preserve the USA's one-goal lead

The start of Jessie Davis' week provides a near perfect illustration of the strides that women's football has taken and the challenges it still faces.

On Monday the Virginia native watched from her temporary home in east Belfast as former college team-mate Alyssa Naeher dived low to her right to smother Steph Houghton's 83rd-minute penalty and effectively send the USA into the World Cup final.

"I screamed," admits Davis.

"I mean I screamed so loud that someone probably thought about calling the police."

Fast forward 24 hours and Davis has gone from spectator to player as Glentoran meet fierce rivals Linfield in the biggest game of the NIFL Women's Premiership season.

Far from the record-breaking viewing figures of the USA's semi-final showdown with England, there were about 400 spectators in attendance at Midgely Park.

The Glens won 1-0, leapfrogging the Blues at the top of the table.

Glentoran Ladies beat Sion Swifts
Davis and Simpson (second row, second and third from right), helped Glentoran lift the League Cup in June

A season-defining moment for the teams involved and indeed the fans in the stands, but one that may in truth have gone unnoticed by the majority of football fans in Northern Ireland.

If the World Cup has broken the mould and sent women's football to new heights, the trickle-down effect has yet to reach the local game.

Perhaps this is not entirely surprising given that the tournament is still ongoing but Davis, who arrived at Glentoran on a short-term basis, says footballing authorities in Northern Ireland can't stand still and wait for the rest of the world to break the mould for them.

A balancing act

"Bringing players in from other countries does generate a buzz," says Davis, who has played in Australia and Sweden since leaving American shores.

"I know girls that I played with in the past are now asking if there are opportunities for them here going forward.

"With someone like (Jamaica international goalkeeper) Nicole McClure coming, that has generated a buzz. You get players from other countries coming in and that gets a bit of momentum going."

Nicole McClure
Sion Swifts goalkeeper Nicole McClure represented Jamaica at the World Cup

The Women's Premiership is still some way from becoming professional, indeed the top tier of men's football in the country, which enjoys a considerably larger audience, contains just a few teams with the resources to allow their players to train full-time.

With money at a premium, attention must at least for now turn to finding ways to attract local investment which, as Davis accepts, means a balance must be struck in terms of bringing in overseas talent and finding opportunities for home-grown players.

"You never want it to be oversaturated with players who aren't from here because you need to build up the Northern Irish players," she says.

"One of the big things is focusing on the younger players. There probably needs to be a bigger connection there in terms of getting the young players out to our games and getting them more involved.

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"It is going to take a while in order to generate the support but you will see a snowball effect.

"As the players improve the competition gets better and more people will come to the games, which is more money and revenue for the teams. "

Alex Morgan: The mindset of a champion

Davis' involvement is a good example of the snowball effect she envisages.

A few months after her arrival in mid-April, Davis persuaded her former team-mate and compatriot Jessie Simpson to join her in Belfast.

"I have played in Florida and Tenerife which are full of sunshine, so I wanted to branch out a little bit." she laughs whilst basking in the July rain.

It is not only the weather that has provided Simpson with a change of pace, since arriving from UDG Tenerife in the Spanish top-tier she has found herself with more time on her hands as the Glens are currently confined to two training sessions a week.

"We need more training. Maybe if we get more time on the field here then it is going to grow," she says.

"Some investment would be great. Obviously you get out what you put in."

"We definitely have a lot of potential, I was pleasantly surprised when I came here at how good the players are".

Alex Morgan scores against England
Alex Morgan is the USA's co-captain at the World Cup

Simpson has seen first-hand the benefits of investment and time.

Having graduated from the University of South Florida, the central defender was invited to train with Orlando Pride before they began their inaugural NWSL season in 2016.

In training, Simpson came up against the Pirates' marquee signing and arguably the greatest international striker of the modern era, Alex Morgan.

"It was an amazing experience," Simpson reflects.

"What was interesting to see was how they went from college to the highest level. They focused on the simple things like nutrition and training.

"The other thing was a great work ethic. They never quit, they won't stop and that's their mentality."

Silencing the 'haters'

And so back to Naeher, who is now looking forward to Sunday's final against the Netherlands.

In many ways her rise has mirrored that of the women's game itself.

Much maligned, often doubted but ultimately proving the doubters wrong on the biggest stage, Naeher appears to have earned the trust of the vocal American support after they were initially unsure whether or not she was capable of performing at the highest level.

"I played with her at Penn State for three years and we all knew she was an incredible talent," said Davis.

"I knew she was going to save the penalty. there are definitely moments when you look at a keeper and think it is not looking good, but she had such a good game and was just in the zone.

"Alyssa had huge shoes to fill and at this World Cup she has proven herself".

Jackie Simpson
Simpson joined Glentoran from UDG Tenerife on a short-term deal in June

The ability to prove the naysayers wrong has long been a hallmark of elite athletes, and you could strongly argue that women's football comes in for a disproportionate amount of online scrutiny from those seemingly keen for the product to fail.

"You are always going to have internet trolls, the 'haters' for lack of a better term," says Simpson.

"The top teams handle it really well and they do their speaking on the field.

"They do their preparation beforehand and they can be confident because they have put in the work and the time."

While finding the time in an amateur league is far easier said than done, if you look at Northern Ireland's Women's Premiership you will find a league desperate to follow suit from the top level of the women's game in branching out, silencing the haters and breaking the mould.