Meet the girl who took the boys on at football - and won

Since she was 12 years old Niamh McKevitt has been the only girl in the whole of England playing boys football in her age group. Now having written a book about her experiences on and off the pitch, she talks to Sarah Freeman.

Footballer Niamh McKevitt, who has written the book 'Playing With The Boys.' 18th August 2015. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

Ask Niamh McKevitt which football team she supports and she hesitates for a moment.

“Err...I watch Match of the Day and I keep up with Sheffield United, but I don’t have a club as such. If you pushed me I might say Everton.”

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Given that in the last four years the 16-year-old has broken the mould when it comes to girls football her lack of loyalty to one particular club comes as something as a surprise. However, as she says herself, she much prefers playing the sport rather than watching it.

“I was five years old when I first became interested in football,” says Niamh. “Every Tuesday, my dad used to play in a five-a-side team and with mum working nights, he used to take me and my little brother Evan along to watch. It wasn’t long before we got bored and started playing with one of the spare match balls at the side of the pitch.”

Later when Evan joined Sheffield Wednesday Soccer Skills sessions on a Saturday morning, rather than sitting on the sidelines, Niamh was persuaded to join in. Bitten by the footballing bug, she was encouraged by the club’s coach to develop her skills, but in those early days she admits that there were some who doubted her talent.

“I was the only girl and always the last to be picked,” she says. “I remember one time when it was a choice between me and tiny four year old boy. By then I’d been playing for a year and it was his first week. Even so, he was picked ahead of me.”

Despite those early prejudices, Niamh fell in love with the game and by the time she celebrated her 12th birthday there was a decision to make. In 2011, the Football Association announced it had amended its rules to allow girls and boys to play in the same teams up to Under 13 level. Prior to that, they had been separated at 12. Not many young female footballers took up the offer. In fact Niamh was the only one.

“At the time I was playing for a girls’ side at Middlewood Rovers, I was enjoying it, but there wasn’t much opposition,” she says. “In fact there were probably only two teams which could give us a decent game. We’d won the league three years running and most of those matches had been pretty one-sided. With all the experience I’d had up to then, I reckoned that if I joined a boys’ side I would become a better footballer.”

After trials with a number of clubs, Niamh was signed by Millhouses Boys. It was the start of a competitive career in the game and also the start of proving those who doubted girls could compete alongside boys at that level wrong.

“There was always shocked faces whenever I turned up and you could hear people muttering from the sidelines, but honestly, it has never taken me long to be accepted as just another player. I’m not one of those skilful footballers who is really beautiful to watch. I play in defence and I’m one of those solid players, so after five or 10 minutes the opposition and any parents watching tend to forget that there is a girl on the pitch.

“It’s the same when it comes to tackling. There have definitely been some opposition players who have been worried about tackling a girl or going in hard. However, they also don’t want to be made to look silly, so as soon as you tackle them, they think, ‘ok, am not going to give her any ground, she’s just another footballer’.”

Niamh should have had just one year playing for a boys’ side, but as that first season came to an end, the FA again extended the age cap on mixed teams. It was the same story the next year and the decision was partly due to the success of Niamh.

Spells at Derby followed and Niamh also became the first girl to play for Sheffield Wednesday Boys Elite Player Development Centre. However, when it came to international football, she again found obstacles in her way.

“England like you to have played for girls’ teams,” says Niamh, who has just written a book about her experiences. “The argument is that the football boys play is different physically and technically. I agree to an extent. The women’s game is slower and there is a lot more passing, but I think that the strength I have gained from playing with the boys just gives me an extra edge.

“If you just play for a girls’ side you don’t have to deal with too many strikers who are 6ft 2ins tall and I do believe I’m a better all rounder because of it. In the end it didn’t matter. My mum is Irish and I was signed by the Republic of Ireland.”

Having just sat her GCSEs Niamh is now exploring the possibility of winning a football scholarship to an American University.

“Women’s football has come a really long way in the last few years, but there is still a long way to go,” says Niamh. “My inspiration is Mia Hamm, who twice one the World Cup with America - even Pele said that he wouldn’t have wanted to play against her and that’s’ some compliment.”

Playing With the Boys by Niamh McKevitt is published by Vision Sport Publishing priced £12.99.