Nicholl eager to see women’s game develop
Alison Nicholl is without doubt the first lady of Northern Ireland football.
The Ballymoney woman is player/coach at Coleraine Ladies, manager of Northern Ireland Under-17s and the first woman from Northern Ireland to earn the UEFA Pro Licence, the highest coaching certification available.
As women’s football continues to go from strength to strength, Alison is as passionate about the ‘beautiful game’ today as when she started playing as a child and she is eager to see continued investment to ensure development at all levels of the game.
Like many women in the sport Alison began playing at school on the boys team although the views on girls being involved in football were very different then.
“I played football at primary school with the boys,” said Alison. “Back then there were very few girls who played and no girls teams.
“I would kick about in the park with the boys who were in my class and then in the school playground. I remember the headmaster telling me that girls shouldn’t be playing football! Views were quite old fashioned then.”
Despite the disapproval, Nicholl, an all round sports woman, continued to play going on to form Coleraine Ladies, a team she still plays for.
“I have always loved all types of sport, particularly team sports and I played hockey and netball at school and participated in athletics,” she said.
“I played hockey for Dalriada School and Ballymoney Ladies Hockey Club. Then I moved to Coleraine Ladies Hockey Club for a number of years when Caryn Bentley, a South African Olympian, was player/coach.
“When playing hockey at Coleraine we were competing with the top teams and getting to All Ireland play offs. We had a really strong team ethic and Caryn made “ordinary” hockey players look good.
“I enjoyed playing alongside her and found her to be an inspirational player and coach. She played to win and was named one of the top eleven players in the world.
“I also played football for Ballymoney Ladies, East End Ladies and then formed Coleraine Ladies.
“At that time Coleraine Football Club approached me to start a senior ladies team. There was an interest and upturn in girls and women’s football.
“I was player/coach at East End Ladies when they spoke to me and I had already started on the coaching ladder, thanks to East End. who then effectively became Coleraine Ladies and in my first year we did the league and division double.”
Alison won her first cap for Northern Ireland in 1996, a time when there were very few opportunities for women to progress in football.
“I got my first cap at Lansdowne Road against the Republic of Ireland on October 26, 1996. Back when there was little funding for the senior international team. We only got a few home nations international friendlies and were not competing in any competitions.
“We had to wear the men’s kit and tracksuits. Now the international squads have all the latest equipment to include GPS technology, coaches, doctors, physios, S&C, Analysts, nutrition and player profiling experts.
“The girls have so many opportunities that were not available when I was playing. They are competing in European championships and World Cup competitions.
“If you now want to make football a career there are so many opportunities through the player pathway that the IFA has in place.
“We now have female players getting semi-pro and pro contracts in England and Scotland.”
Alison, an avid Liverpool fan, has excelled since moving into coaching and she passes on her experience and knowledge to girls on both the local and international stage.
“I got my B licence back in 2006 and since then I have never looked back. I have coached at East End Ladies, Coleraine Ladies, Northern Ireland U-16 development squad and Northern Ireland U-17 and U-19 Women.
“I am a player/coach at club level for Coleraine Ladies and I manage to combine both roles effectively,” added Nicholl.
“When I coach the Coleraine girls I enjoy developing players at grassroots level and when I see them actually taking coaching points from a training session onto the pitch it is very rewarding. Several have gone on to gain representative honours.
“I also really enjoy developing and coaching the elite athletes at Northern Ireland Under-17 level. The Northern Ireland girls are very disciplined and are competing to wear the green shirt for their country. Coaching them is always a challenge as you are developing the best young players.
“Travelling with them to compete in European championships has been a fantastic experience and I have learnt so much about working with players both from a technical and psychological aspect. Several of these girls, over the years have gone on to obtain professional contracts in England and Scotland and play at the highest level in Northern Ireland.
“I have recently had to step back due to promotion at work and also juggling home life as I am mum to Zach who is almost 8-years old, and my club football commitments.
“I am currently working with the recently formed Rangers Boys Academy in Ballymoney and I have been coaching the 2008 boys which I am enjoying as a new challenge.”
Always aiming to the very best she can be in all aspects of her life, Alison became the first woman from Northern Ireland to earn the UEFA Pro Licence alongside the likes of Benni McCarthy,(South Africa,West Ham, Blackburn), Harry Kewell,(Liverpool and Leeds), Michael Beale, (Liverpool and now Rangers), Herman Heriderson (Iceland, Crystal Palace etc) and Liam Rosenior (Brighton, Fulham, Hull).
“I completed my UEFA Pro Licence in October 2018 and was very proud to be the first woman from Northern Ireland to obtain the licence.
“I wanted to be able to ensure that when I was coaching the Northern Ireland Under-16 and U-17 girls that I was trained and prepared as best as I possibly could be.
“The Pro Licence gave me the opportunity to gain the most up to date information on all aspects of coaching and management. I am very ambitious and driven and strive for perfection no matter what I do so when the opportunity was presented to me I grabbed it with both hands. UEFA funded part of the course because I was female and Nigel Best from the IFA encouraged me to participate. Coleraine FC also supported me on this journey as they funded part of the course as well.
“The course was absolutely fantastic, it took two years to complete and was extremely tough but it was a fantastic learning experience.
“I got to work with some of the top coaches in the game and the course content was of the highest quality and standard.
“Speakers on the course included Eddie Howe the Bournemouth manager and various experts from all over Europe. The course included visits to Man City for a Champions League game and UEFA HQ for several assessments.
“The course was very male dominated as you would expect. There was one other female from the Republic of Ireland but that didn’t bother me. We all supported each other and the group formed a real bond over the duration of the course. I work in the ICT industry which can also be male dominated so am quite used to that type of environment.”
Alison has recently stepped down from her international duties due to work/life commitments, however, it is a role she plans to return to in the not too distant future
“Over the last few months I have had to step back from my international role due to work commitments in my busy day job where I lead Digital Transformation in Invest Northern Ireland. I have worked in the international setup for 13 years and hopefully can return if and when dates don’t clash.”
Holding down a stressful full time job, looking after her family and fulfilling numerous football commitments, takes an enormous amount of dedication. However, Alison, who lives outside Ballymoney with her partner Alfie Wylie, the IFA’s first Head of Women’s Elite performance, and son Zach has always had the full support of her family and employer as she juggles her busy life.
“My family and partner have always been behind me 100%. Alfie obviously being heavily involved in football helps! He has constantly encouraged me along the coaching ladder.
“I have always loved playing as well as coaching and wanted to give back to the game. I enjoy playing alongside my sisters for Coleraine and it always does make for some interesting after match banter!
“I enjoy my Digital Champion role with Invest Northern Ireland. They have always been very supportive.
“My son Zach will be 8-years old in August and is well used to being part of a “footballing” family. He plays for Ballymoney United Youth Academy although he tells me that I am obsessed with football! He also swims and goes to gymnastics so hopefully is going to be sporty like his mum! “At times it can be difficult juggling everything but Zach is great and usually tags along with us wherever we go.
“He now knows how to set up for a session and can be heard in the back garden telling us how to set up a particular drill or skill session that we are attempting to show him!
“I can’t imagine what it will be like when I stop playing. There is nothing quite like playing and competing. Also there is nothing like that buzz when you score a wee goal and win a game.
“I’m used to juggling things and can’t really imagine life any other way. If I need some down time I take myself off for a run and am purchasing a racing road bike so I can escape now in lockdown as well!”
Alison who describes herself as competitive, passionate and driven is as hungry for success today as the first day she played. She would also like to see the women’s game continue to develop and progress.
“As a coach and manager I obviously want to win trophies and gain promotion. I also want to get the best out of the players that I have and see them compete and enjoy the game. I love the buzz you get and I’m the first to admit that I’m very competitive. Every time I play or put a team out I have to win.
“The women’s game has come a long way since I was first involved and I would like to see it continue to develop at all levels.
“Investing in the game is critical at all levels. Continued investment in the player pathway, female coaches and local women’s clubs will ensure that there is a bright future for women’s football in Northern Ireland. What I would also like to see would be more females getting involved and starting on the coaching ladder.”