'Explosion in interest' in underage game thanks to national side - chairman

The chair of Ballymena United women's football club has credited the success of the Northern Ireland senior women's team for an explosion in interest in the underage game.

Mark Livingstone who became involved through his own daughters said the club had become a big part of his family's life.

He said the growth in the game had been steady over the past eight years but had surged in the last 12 months.

"Eight years ago the girls' side had just started up and my children were approached. We had about ten or a dozen girls and it grew steadily. But in the last year it has exploded."

"We have grown from around ten girls to around 100 and the vast majority of that has come from the success of the senior team, there's no doubt about that," he added.

Anne Smyth, whose daughter also plays at the club, said the growth at Ballymena was mirrored across Northern Ireland.

"We are just blown away by the growth in women's football. We have seven new teams within the Electric Ireland Northern Ireland Women's Football Association that's just in the last year. And there are five women's leagues."

Anne Smyth also helps run 'Game Changers NI' which is Electric Ireland's campaign run in partnership with the IFA since 2017 to support the growth of girls and women's football from grassroots to Premiership sides.

She explained how important it was for men to support the growth in girls and women's football.

"We need men to be advocates for football, for women's football and for their own football. This club is an example of there being really supportive women and men trying to grow the game," she said.

"We just have to normalise the fact that girls are amazing at football so let's encourage them."

The deputy chair of Ballymena Women FC however said that there were still challenges and obstacles to be overcome.

Claire-Anne Mills revealed while the senior team play their matches at the Showgrounds they were often forced out of the town as there is a lack of facilities and pitches available for their training.

She called on elected representatives to continue to fund and support the sport among girls and women.

"There is a responsibility on us as a club to support and develop our players and infrastructure but there's also a responsibility for other organisations - for local councils, for those in government, in the IFA. But the really exciting thing is that the will is there," she said.

"All of those organisations want to support us, they see the power of sport. It's proven to benefit physical and mental health, it builds resilience and strong communities. It's for all of us to come together and really build on the success of the European Championships."

Claire-Anne revealed how the younger players at Ballymena United had been inspired by the senior team.

"They see how if they work hard, train hard like Sarah McFadden and Chloe McCarron who played for Ballymena United before them, there is an incredible international set up for them."

"The sky is the limit. They can reach for the stars and dare to dream. There's no limit to where football can take them," she added.

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