By Gerard Mulreaney (@gerardmulreaney)
With no competitive fixtures on the horizon until the European Championship Qualifiers begin later this year, the Republic of Ireland Women’s National team head into a double-header of friendly Internationals against Wales this week in Spain.
With the retirement of long-time International Áine O’Gorman, with 100 caps for her country, and midfielder Karen Duggan, it opened up opportunities for others.
One of those who’s grasping that opportunity with both hands is 16 year-old Shelbourne star Jessica Ziu.
Jessica was called up by Colin Bell for the final game of the 2019 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers against Northern Ireland in Tallaght Stadium last August. The game finished 4-0 to the Girls in Green and Ziu made her debut, coming on for Wexford Youths star Rianna Jarrett in the 76th minute, in front of a large crowd of almost 2,000 people.
So, how proud was she when it happened? Ziu told me, “Of course, it was proud day. I’ve always had a dream of playing international football. Never did I think I would be doing it so young and in a World Cup Qualifying game, so when I did make my debut against Northern Ireland it was such a proud and memorable moment in my career for me and my family and I’m just hoping there’s more to come.”
“The World Cup Qualifier was the biggest crowd I’ve ever played on front of but I enjoyed it. When I came on it felt breathtaking. I had my family and friends supporting me but as soon as you step onto the pitch it feels as if the crowd’s not there anymore, but the noise is still there, you can’t hear any of the girls on the pitch.”
“Sometimes the bigger the crowd the more nervous I get, so I try to block them out until after the game. It’s crazy to think that the game before this one I was sitting in the stands cheering for the girls, then a few weeks later I’m sitting in the dugout with the girls. It was unbelievable, something I will cherish for a life time.”
Ziu has the highest of praise for her parents, who’ve been there every step of the way, and says they’ve had the biggest influence of all in her career to date, “Without question my parents have had the biggest influence on my career. Firstly, I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. I wouldn’t be able to get to training or matches without them, they both support me so much. My dad is always helping me after the games, on what I could have done better or what I need to improve on which helps me a lot also.”
The youngster explains how the call-up to the International team came, “I got an email from Colin (Bell) saying he wanted to have a meeting with myself and my parents before a home-based session. He then went on to say that he wanted to bring me in for the last World Cup Qualifier against Northern Ireland. The first thing I felt was the joy and excitement but I was also nervous. I didn’t want to overthink it. It was definitely one to remember, and something I will never forget.”
When I asked her if she looked up to any of the players in the Irish side ahead of joining up with the squad she said, “Well I would look up to a lot of other nations players like Carli Lloyd (US), Steph Catley (Australia) and Tobin Heath (US), until Colin told me to start watching Denise (O’Sullivan) play and how she would protect the ball and how she uses her body. I started to do that and then I took more interest in all of the girls like Diane (Caldwell), Katie (McCabe) Louise (Quinn) and just focused on how they would play and just look up to them.”
Ziu didn’t really know what to expect when she first joined up with the squad, and says that the step up is another level altogether to what she was used to, “It was a difficult challenge, but an enjoyable one without a doubt. I think the National League is growing everyday. It’s getting better and quicker, with more interest, but International football is just a whole new level. You can’t switch off once or you’re punished straight away, but the majority of the time in the National League you would get away with that. Most of the girls also play abroad with big clubs so there’s always the thought and extra pressure when you get the ball, you don’t want to let them down, you want to prove to them why your there.”
With this week’s double-header taking place in Marbella, Spain the girls will be in a training camp for a week, a training camp that will be vital in terms of getting the squad prepared for the bigger task of qualifying for the 2021 European Championships.
Ziu says that she’s feeling much more comfortable in camp this time around, “Yeah it’s a great atmosphere in camp, everyone is still excited with the group we got. At the minute all of our focus is on the Wales games, so we can get as much out of them as we can. We’ve been working really hard in training and also off the pitch too. I think it’s a great preparation game against Wales as they are second seeds in their European Championship group. It’s also a great opportunity to show them and other nations what we can do. This camp I feel like I’m able to get on the ball and express myself more. I can feel myself settling in more with the girls and I need to just keep working hard and hopefully I’ll be in the squad for the European Championship games.”
And she’s really enjoying it, “Being part of the national team at the age of 16 is every girls ambition. It’s one step closer to what I want achieve in my life and being part of this team will definitely help me. The standard of football in the camp is so intense and quick, you always learn so much from watching the older girls play. Just been able to train along side them is really helpful.”
And the players in the squad have been great with her also, “Every single senior player has been so much help to me, as well as all the staff. There all so humorous, joking, funny to be around but there also helpful in many ways on the pitch and off the pitch. That was my biggest nerve reck for me going into my first camp. I knew a few of the girls, it was more the experience ones I’ve never talked to but they welcomed me with a hug and as camp goes on I feel like I’m settling in more and more.”
Colin Bell’s side were recently drawn in Group I of the European Championships Qualifiers, alongside Germany, Ukraine, Greece and Montenegro. It’s a very tough group, with the Germans ranked second in the world and Ukraine 24th, however according to Jessica this squad feel they have a chance to qualify, “I think we got a good group, we’ve a lot of positive thoughts going into this Wales camp knowing we have Germany, Ukraine, Greece, and Montenegro. It can be the first major tournament the women’s national team may qualify for which is huge for us. I think once we stay positive, work hard on and off the pitch without a doubt we will have a good chance in topping our group.”
Jessica began the 2018 season, at just 15 years old, as part of the Shelbourne U17 team, which is coached by Women’s National League Title winner as a manager, Laura Heffernan. However, she didn’t hang around long, as Heffernan added, “I only had Jess for pre-season as she moved up to the Seniors pretty quickly last year, however she did play for me at Leinster Schools. She’s a very versatile player, can play centrally or as a winger. She’s quick, excellent technically and is a real attacking threat. She also has a great work rate and fantastic attitude.”
The fact that Jessica was deemed good enough for the Shelbourne Senior side, she made her Women’s National League (WNL) debut against Galway in June, just shows the sort of quality that exists in the Shelbourne set-up, as that U17 team went on to win the inaugural WNL U17 title, beating the aforementioned Galway WFC 2-0 in the final.
With the Women’s National League set to kick-off in just 8 days time Jessica says that the goal for her and her team-mates is to challenge for trophies, and she’s looking forward to getting the season up an running. She said, “I think It’s going to be a tough challenging year for all of us. We’ve had a great pre-season together. We’ve had new staff come in. Having Dave Bell as our manager we should be aiming high. You can already see massive improvement in our style of play. We’re all so focused for the season to start. We’ll all be learning new experienced throughout the year. If there are defeats, we will take them as a team and just come back stronger. Despite not winning anything last year I think we have a good young team. A quick and strong group of girls, I would like to think we’re going to take every trophy this season then compete in the Champions League next season.”
They finished runners-up to Wexford Youths last season, finishing just two points behind them, but Jessica said that they deserved to win it, “I think we were unfortunate in some games last season but Wexford Youths had a great season and fully deserved the title. But this year, like I said, new staff, new year, some new faces on the team, I think we will take the next step and go and win the league. That’s everyone’s ambitions this year.”
“I’m so excited for the season to start. We can’t afford many defeats this year if we want to go and win it. We have Kilkenny United away in our first game and we definitely can’t take them for granted. The team is shaping up so well, everyone is so friendly on the team, we like to help each other but we’re all still competing for a spot in the starting 11. But it’s all looking positive at the moment.”
Picture Credits: FAI