17 again

'I couldn't ask for any more to be honest... I'm living my dream, as cringe as that sounds'

Isibeal Atkinson’s rise has been meteoric, and she appears to have a very bright future ahead.

BOTTOM LINE: ISIBEAL Atkinson is one of the most talented, young, up-and-coming footballers in the country right now.

Cool as a breeze, the 17-year-old is under the spotlight at the launch of the 2019 Aviva Soccer Sisters Easter Football Festival. Those her age may be shy, nervous and not very talkative in this situation, but no. Not Izzy, as she enthusiastically introduces herself.

Aviva Soccer Sisters Easter Football Festival Launch Isibeal Atkinson. Sam Barnes / SPORTSFILE Sam Barnes / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

After a morning of photographs alongside budding Soccer Sisters participants on the Landowne Road turf, Atkinson settles down for a quick chat in front-row stadium seats.

It was a morning well spent, she smiles. One in which the younger girls present — who varied in age from seven to 12 — got the chance to spend time with a star who recently made her first start for the Ireland senior side.

They watched on in awe, and that’s put to her first and foremost. She’s not a whole pile older than them at the end of the day.

“Well, I’m young but I still feel like they’re looking up to me which is fun,” she tells The42. It’s all come around pretty fast for the Ireland U19 ace, right? 

“It has actually. I couldn’t ask for any more to be honest. Everything’s just going great.”

It’s hard to process the fact that the Dubliner is just 17. Atkinson was first called up to Colin Bell’s squad in October 2017, she got her first senior international minutes against Portugal in a friendly the following January at the age of 16, made her official debut off the bench against Norway that June, and her first start came against Belgium in January.

To map her meteoric rise now, it’s only right to go back to the very beginning. To where it all began, and to those closest to her who have made it all happen.

Many as prodigiously talented as herself would have played more than just the one sport as a kid, tried their hand at everything and anything. But not Izzy.

“Complete opposite,” she grins. “I was the type of girl that would see another sport and I’d be like, ‘No, football’s the best. I can’t play another sport.’

“My Dad… if I turned around and said to him, ‘Can I play something else?’ he’d probably laugh. Football was my number one sport, my number one everything.”

Atkinson, now a Leaving Cert student, basically grew up with a ball at her foot. She remembers seeing a picture of herself when she was two years old, happily sporting a tracksuit and kicking a football.

Aviva Soccer Sisters Easter Football Festival Launch Young Soccer Sisters participants watch on in awe. Sam Barnes / SPORTSFILE Sam Barnes / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

She’s one of eight children, but none of the others were just as drawn to football as the Shelbourne winger. Her younger sister plays with the club’s U14s alright, but Izzy was a different breed. 

“I’m just a sportaholic,” she explains. “My Dad’s always saying when I was younger he’s never seen anyone as into football as me.

“I used to go out at probably 10 o’clock in the morning, go to the astro, never come home for lunch, never come home for dinner. I’d come home at seven o’clock. My parents never gave out to me, they knew… I’d only be like 10 but they just knew I was alright.”

‘Ah, she’s at the astro with all the lads…’

Not only was she there, but she was showing the lads up. Atkinson joined a local boy’s team when she was five years old, and played with them for as long as she could. She was forced to move to Wicklow outfit Enniskerry from U14s onward. An hour-long drive, she adds, but anything for the love of the game.

“The first year I was there, we won everything,” she recalls. “Leinsters, All-Ireland, the league; I remember just saying it was the right decision. I didn’t regret anything. 

“I stayed with them for three years and then I went to the seniors with Shels. I genuinely don’t feel any regrets so far, it’s good.”

As well as the advantage of a slightly closer location, it also really benefited her cause on the international stage. Powering through the Ireland underage ranks at the time, the move catapulted Atkinson onto bigger and better.

As she charts her journey, we’re interrupted by a little voice and a wave from afar.

See you tonight, Izzy…

One of the kids is her younger sister’s team-mate at Shels, and it’s fair to say that Atkinson’s warm response makes the aspiring footballer’s day.

Isibeal Atkinson, Claire O'Riordan and Rianna Jarrett Atkinson with Ireland senior team-mates Claire O'Riordan and Rianna Jarrett. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

She doesn’t like saying it, she admits, but when she was younger all her role models were males. So to see that interaction first-hand, with Atkinson herself as the role model, is pretty uplifting.

It’s rather fitting that we pick up once again at a breakthrough moment: her first senior call-up. She was in school one day and she got a long text message from her Dad. Not exactly sure what was going on, it wasn’t until she got home that she figured it all out.

“I walked into the sitting room and my Mam and Dad were just smiling, laughing, just too happy. I remember him telling me. I didn’t say anything, I was just like….”

Her mind wanders off slightly, almost lost for words as she relives the moment.

“It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. Getting that at 16 was genuinely the best feeling in the world. I can’t wait — well, not that I can’t wait… but when I’m older to say, ‘I did that when I was 16.’ I mean 16 is the youngest you can do it. You can’t play unless you’re 16. To make my debut at 16 was the best thing ever.”

Of course, she’s living in the moment. Of course, she appreciates it. But perhaps she doesn’t appreciate just how big of a deal this is right now. Everything’s happening so fast, it’s an absolute whirlwind. 

When that avenue is explored, Atkinson opens up more and more. 

“I’m injured now, two months nearly. Now, I’m starting to realise… I’ve definitely realised how…”

Her mind wanders once again. 

“Now is when I’m starting to realise it really is the best thing in my life.”

Atkinson was struck down with the dreaded MCL knee injury in a pre-season club match.

“Always pre-season.” she frowns. “I was feeling at my peak and everything. Well, I mean it could have been a leg-break or 18 months out. Two months isn’t the worst.”

izzy Lining out for Shels against Peamount. Women's National League Twitter. Women's National League Twitter.

Perhaps a big plus is that it’s allowed her place a little more focus on the books. In her Sixth Year with the Ardteist just around the corner, all is going to plan, she assures.

“It’s not too bad. I got my Mocks back and they’re grand. Not a bother. Mam and Dad are happy so that’s all that matters.

“Of course balancing it all is going to be tough. It’s always going to be tough, even if you don’t play football. Coming from my house with my Mam and Dad, it’s football first. I mean I bring my books away with me every time I’m away.”

There’s plenty in the same boat. At least 11 of the U19s, she counts, and of course many of those filter through to the seniors. That support among team-mates and friends is key, but most important of all is the support that comes from her family.

“Yeah,” she smiles. “My Dad… what was it, 13 countries I went to in 2018, and I think my Dad went to 12 of them. That just shows how much he’s with me all the way. I couldn’t ask for any more from him.”

While the travelling to far and exotic places goes hand-in-hand with international football, Atkinson’s heart is most definitely still firmly with the club.

Unfortunately though, she’s had to watch her side’s blistering start to the 2019 Women’s National League (WNL) from the sidelines.

“To be honest, like, this injury… I’ve learned a lot. I can’t wait to be back now. Anytime I feel maybe I’m tired or I’m a bit weak in the legs, I’m just going to think, ‘No, I’m here, I’m not injured, I’m playing.’

“I think maybe these things happen for a reason. Anytime I need a bit of a boost I can just think that my knee’s okay and I’m ready to go.”

It’s her ‘first and hopefully last’ injury, and will definitely remind the eager midfielder just how much she wants to keep herself right and succeed at the top.

She laughs that they train three times a week with the Reds, but she’d be the type to play — either on her own or with someone else — every single day. Gym and football seven days a week so understandably, two months feels like years.

Isibeal Atkinson At the Soccer Sisters' camps launch. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

The pain may be eased slightly how and ever by some extremely positive moves made by Shels recently. The Northsiders have dropped ‘Ladies’ from their name in a bid to achieve equality for all players, while Tolka Park has become their new home ground.

“It’s wonderful,” she beams. “I’ve always said, ‘Why are men different to us?’ We want to play football just as much as the men do. We’re all human. 

“Last year, we would have just played important games only in Tolka, say Cup matches. Now, we’re playing all of our home games. All the girls, every single match, if we’re in Tolka it feels like home. 

“It’s genuinely home for us. It couldn’t just be a coincidence, I can’t remember us playing bad at Tolka. We’re always there for it when we’re in Tolka. Even just walking the pitch when there’s no one there, you just feel right when you’re there. In the AUL when we used to play there, you didn’t feel good.”

She added of the decision to use the club’s social media channels to represent and promote both men’s and women’s teams:

“That’s one of the worst things for women’s football. Me growing up, I remember when I was getting called into the Ireland seniors, I didn’t even know any of the girls because of the media, I never used to see it. 

“Now there’d be a lot of, ‘I know her…’ I feel if I was to go in now I’d know them a lot more than I did. It’s getting better as time goes on. 

“For Shels, sharing it with the men should have happened a long time ago but I’m grateful that it’s happened now anyway.”

That’s when the topic of role models raises it’s head once again, and Atkinson says she looks up to the likes of USA star Carli Lloyd and the Netherlands’ Lieke Martens. 

Colin Bell speaks to the players after the game Colin Bell talks to his team. Andrew Halseid Budd / INPHO Andrew Halseid Budd / INPHO / INPHO

Bell, who she worked under with the U17s last year and now the seniors, encourages they follow examples in an ‘if she can do it, so can I’ kind of way. On that note, what’s he like?

“I actually can’t even explain it… he’s just the best manager I’ve ever had on and off the pitch. He makes us as disciplined as he is. His traits, his personality just grows on us. He really is the best like.

“My confidence grows every day with him. Sometimes in training, maybe you’re not doing that good or whatever but he’ll give you that boost. He makes you feel like you’re good enough.

“If you have a manager that has belief in you, you’re going to have belief in yourself. Simple as.”

And this rising star most definitely does believe she can go all the way. Lastly, a quick word on the pride in the jersey, and just how much it means. 

In short: everything.

But Izzy’s own words give a much better insight.

“I’m one of them people that doesn’t have anything else to do but football,” she concludes. “All my friends are like, ‘Come do this, come do that…’

‘Nah, I’m playing football.’

“It’s all I’ve ever done, all I’ve ever wanted to do. I mean sometimes people tell me, ‘You need to take a break,’ and I’m like, ‘Nah.’ You never need a break from that like. I’m living my dream, as cringe as that sounds.”

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