Since the start of the college year Aislinn Meaney has made two major step ups in her life.
First she moved away from home and into NUI Galway to start her college degree, something that nearly everyone reading this has probably experienced.
Her second step up was altogether much rarer.
On January 18 of this year, the Clare woman donned the green jersey and made her senior international football debut for Ireland in a friendly against Portugal. It’s doubtful there are many others you can meet on the concourse that have represented their country at the highest level.
“It was a sense of accomplishment really,” said the Galway WFC player on what she felt when she learned of her senior call up.
“It’s where I wanted to be and I knew I wanted to get there eventually”.
Meaney was in unfamiliar territory in her senior debut in another way too as she found herself playing right back, a wholly new experience for someone who is naturally a right winger or striker.
“I actually never played there before. That was my first introduction to playing in the defence, so it was completely new to me,” she explained.
It was also instantly clear to Meaney that despite having played for youth international teams growing up, this was different to anything she had previously experienced.
“There was a few things that would be similar enough (to youth international set ups) like the training and that kind of thing, but it’s definitely a new level of professionalism. It’s much quicker, it’s more physical, and it’s taxing on the mental side of things as well,” she reflected.
The Ennis native first took up football as a child playing for Lifford Ladies, and by 16 she was playing for their senior side. It was then when she attracted interest from Women’s National League team Galway WFC.
After passing the trial with flying colours, she joined the squad for pre-season and made her league bow with her new club at just 17.
The first couple of years were a challenge for Aislinn as she was still only in secondary school.
“I was coming from Clare and I was still in fifth year at the time. There was three or four of us coming up from Clare to Galway training and the first few years it was tough enough. I was in my Leaving Cert cycle then so it was tough trying to fit training in while getting study done” remembered Meaney.
That may have been daunting, but Meaney said her time with the Irish youth set up helped prepare her to play for a club away from Lifford Ladies; “playing with the international teams throughout my teenage years would have definitely helped because you’re always mixing with a new bunch of girls. The experience I had behind me definitely helped me to fit in and feel comfortable”.
The new season starts on March 11, and when she spoke to SIN Meaney said she and her teammates were “flat out” since Christmas in pre – season.
“We’ve been training three or four times a week with football sessions and gym, a bit of yoga as well. It’s been really picking up so we’re all really excited and buzzed to start the season” said the 19-year-old.
The first year Arts student was also in a confident mood ahead of the new season believing they can build on last year’s 6th place finish.
“We started making progress towards the end of the season, but it’s was a positive one because we know that the talent is there and we know we can go all the way. So hopefully we can prove it to ourselves, and come home with some silverware.”
She was also positive about the league in general which has a new team this season in Limerick. This can only be a good thing in Aislinn’s eyes
“Adding a new team means more competition for us and it means more games. It’s a big positive for women’s soccer in general because it’s more people getting involved”.
Meaney now also plays for the NUI Galway intervarsity team. Unfortunately, they had to deal with a devastating penalties loss to Waterford IT recently in the Kelly Cup after a 3 – 3 draw.
Aislinn is choosing to look on the bright side however by refocusing her efforts on trying to win the Lyndon Plate at the intervarsity tournament, which begins in UL this Thursday.
She would admit herself that since she has gotten to college, there has been times where it has been difficult to juggle her football with her academic and social life.
“It can be difficult at times because you’re training full time and you’re studying full time. You’ve assignments due and you want to meet your friends, so you got to make that sacrifice sometimes. You have to know what to prioritise at certain times,” she said.
On the other hand, she was also quick to point out that accommodating coaches at both her college and club teams have helped make life easier.
“I’m lucky that the coaching staff is very understanding. They know I’m training for both teams, so they’re not pushing for me to be in one place rather than the other.”
Looking ahead, Aislinn said she would consider trying her hand at playing professionally after she finishes her Arts degree.
“Playing on the senior team you see some of the girls are playing professional football in the likes of England and America, so you kind of get a taste for it in that sense”.
“It’s definitely something I’d consider because that life is very enticing. I’d love to try it out” she continued.
In the more immediate term, Aislinn’s main aim football-wise is to get involved in the Irish senior team’s forthcoming World Cup qualifiers, especially as Colin Bell’s outfit have made an excellent start to their campaign sitting joint top of group 3 with European champions the Netherlands.
There will be yet another leap to make for her to play competitive senior international football, but Aislinn Meaney has succeeded in taking the next step in the past so there’s no reason why she can’t do it again.
By Graham Gillespie