Simone Magill dreamt of making it big one day.
To play football for a living was the ultimate goal, but coming from a small town in Northern Ireland, the ambition to make it to the top of the women’s game was quickly rebuffed as no more than a fanciful daydream.
“I remember distinctively when I was in primary school and everybody starts saying, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?'”, Magill recalls to MOTDx.
“I said, ‘I want to be a professional footballer’ – and everybody started laughing.”
Magill can chuckle to herself now at those classmates who doubted her, as the 27-year-old Everton striker – who became the first female player from Northern Ireland to become a full-time professional – is about to embark on the biggest test of her career.
This summer, Northern Ireland will take their place at a women’s major tournament for the first time in their history after qualifying for the Euro 2022 finals in England by beating Ukraine 4-1 in a two-legged play-off last year.
“For me, playing for Northern Ireland was the ultimate dream,” adds Magill. “To be a part of that first team to qualify for a major tournament – I don’t think anything will ever top that in my life.”
Forging a pathway, a long way from home
The streets of Magherafelt, in County Londonderry, were not exactly paved with footballing gold for Magill.
Although the Sandy Grove Estate was her “Wembley” and her natural talent was recognised at an early age, the opportunities to progress further in the game were limited.
“I was playing in the Premier League over here, I was getting top goalscorer in the league and I was at a real crossroads in my life in terms of, what do I do next?” says Magill.
“The game was still not fully professional, so I decided ‘well, why not go make my own pathway and let’s try figure this out’.”
A helping hand to guide Magill was Elaine Junk, chairwoman of Mid Ulster Ladies FC, who knew the youngster just needed a persuasive force to fight her corner.
“Simone had said she’d looked at some of the clubs across the water. She liked what she’d seen around the ethos of Everton,” says Junk.
“So, a phone call was made across to Everton Ladies. I randomly rang them and asked to speak to the women’s manager, who probably thought ‘who is this random woman ringing from Northern Ireland to tell me about a young girl?’
“However, they believed me. And they got Simone over for a trial.”
Magill’s life would change almost overnight thanks to Junk’s involvement. Everton were keen to sign the then 18-year-old before the inaugural Women’s Super League season in 2013 thanks to her 18 goals in the Northern Irish Premier League for Mid Ulster.
“On a Monday to Thursday, I would be in high school, and then I would fly across to play for Everton on a weekend, and then fly back,” Magill says.
“Until I could make the move over officially, that was me, that got me across the water, got my foot in the door and then that’s when the real hard work had to start for me.
“I look back now, nearly 10 years later, and I made it work. I stuck at it and I became a full-time professional, the first person to do it from Northern Ireland.”
The ‘ultimate dream’ about to come true
Stepping out on the international stage is not something Magill takes for granted. Last month Northern Ireland played in front of 15,348 fans at a sold-out Windsor Park – a record for a women’s match in the country.
“For me, it’s the proudest thing I’ll ever do is represent Northern Ireland,” she says.
“For years, we played and nobody cared, nobody watched. We want young kids to look up to us and look at what we’ve done.”
Magill made her senior debut for her country at the age of 15 and holds the record for the fastest international goal in women’s football. She found the net against Georgia in 11 seconds in 2016 – beating previous record holder Alex Morgan of the United States by one second.
Northern Ireland’s journey back among the elite of women’s football has been 18 years in the making, as the national team only reformed in 2004.
Manager Kenny Shiels’ arrival in 2019 set in motion a change in mentality and tactics and despite not being backed to even qualify for the Euros, his side finished second behind Norway in Group C and claimed a spot in the play-offs.
Magill was on target in Kovalivka with a clinical finish during a 2-1 first-leg win over Ukraine in April 2021, taking her tally to four goals across Northern Ireland’s qualifying campaign.
“I have visualised what I would do if I scored that first goal in the Euros and it’s definitely something you do dream of,” says Magill. “That could be reality.”
After the jubilant second-leg scenes at a packed house at Seaview in Belfast, the Green and White Army will travel to England in July to see their team compete in Group A alongside Norway, Austria and the hosts.
How far Northern Ireland can go as the lowest-ranked team to have qualified is yet to be seen. But for now, Magill hopes to inspire the next generation to never stop chasing their ambitions.
She says: “If I had a message to any young kids out there, it’s have a dream, believe in the dream, and if you believe in it then you can make it happen, because that’s what I did.”