THE BLOG

Why I Chose to Play Football With the Boys... And Where It Took Me

24/08/2015 09:24 BST | Updated 21/08/2016 10:59 BST

Back in 2011, the FA changed its rules regarding mixed football. For the first time ever girls were allowed to compete with boys at under 13s. I didn't know it at the time, but, according to the FA, I was the only girl in my age group to take advantage of the opportunity.

I have written a book about my experience called Playing With The Boys which I hope will encourage more girls to give mixed football a go.

I was 12 years old when the rule changed. I had been playing football in girls' teams for several years and really felt I'd gone as far as I could. I've always wanted to become the best player I can be and playing with the boys offered a new challenge plus the chance to experience a different kind of football.

I was also aware that for literally decades girls had been unsuccessfully attempting to get this rule changed. When the FA finally relented, it took everyone by surprise. To me it looked too good an opportunity to miss, so I asked my dad to help find me a team.

Five seasons later and I'm now playing in the Women's Premier League for Huddersfield Town, but I look back on that decision as the best I've ever taken.

After a series of trials I was fortunate to secure a place in one of the top boys' teams in my home town of Sheffield. We played in the largest grassroots league in Europe and I spent the next four years in the top divisions.

I really enjoyed the higher intensity of the boys' matches. That's not to say that boys are necessarily better players than girls - they're not in my experience - but the games are different. For a start there's a lot more boys playing. There were 79 boys teams in our league: in the equivalent girls league there were just 12.

What that means is that the spread of ability - across leagues, divisions and even individual teams - is much narrower in the boys' game, making it more competitive. That's compounded by the fact that boys are brought up to be more competitive than girls. Everything was a competition for my teammates: from who get the front seat in the car on the way to a game to who could eat the most chips on the way home.

And of course there are the physical differences. As I got older, the boys got bigger and quicker. They develop the twitch muscle, which results in the explosive speed that makes the games at the top level so exciting. It's much rarer to see that in the women's game.

I do get asked about the reaction of other players to the fact there's a girl playing and how I responded to negative comments. I say it depends what you mean by negative. Certainly what people call 'sledging' - saying things to put your opponent off their game - is a big part of boys' football that is almost completely missing in the girls' game.

I really enjoyed that aspect of the game though - it really added to the excitement. I'm a full back, so if I ever heard people making comments about me or laughing about playing against a girl, I'd be secretly quite pleased, because I knew meant they were being complacent and underestimating me. It just made their reaction to the first crunching challenge I put in feel even better. Of course there are occasions where sledging stops and abuse starts, but that's got nothing to do with the fact I'm a girl: it's wrong whoever is on the receiving end.

There have been so many highlights. Like the time when we only had ten men until I turned up 30 seconds before kick off. As I got into position, I could see the other team were killing themselves laughing and wondered what the big joke was. Then I realised it was me! To be honest, I could kind of see their point. We were top of the league, so they must have been delighted to be up against only 10 men... "And look the 11th player is a girl." (They stopped laughing when we beat them 3-0).

Or the time I scored a late equaliser in a quarter final. It was a rare goal for me, but a really important one. However, instead of going mad with our celebrations, we all realised that hugs might be a bit awkward, so we made do with some muted high-fives instead.

Playing with the boys helped me in my aim to get to the top of the women's game. I made my full first team debut for Huddersfield Town just seven days after my 16th birthday and also had my first experience of international football for Republic of Ireland under 16s (rather than England... but that's another story).

I've always wanted to play at the highest standard I can. When I was young that was in boys' football, but now my future is in the women's game; whoever I'm playing with or against, it's all just football to me.

Niamh McKevitt is author of Playing with the Boys published by Vision Sport Publishing priced £12.99. To purchase your copy, click here