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'As soon as I made that choice for America, my ambition to wear the Irish shirt was taken off me'

Linda Greene on going to America at 17 and falling out of favour at international level.

Dubliner Linda Greene made the move to America on a scholarship at 17 years of age.
Dubliner Linda Greene made the move to America on a scholarship at 17 years of age.

THE YEAR WAS 1994. Linda Greene was 17. And she suddenly found herself presented with an extraordinary opportunity in America.

Greene had competed in a number of sports growing up: tennis, Gaelic football, camogie and of course soccer, which she regularly played on the street in Finglas with her brother and other boys.

She was encouraged to pursue sport by her parents, and her father was Greene’s biggest fan.

“I was doing my Leaving Cert at 16, I was very young finishing up,” she tells The42. “My dad just said you need to buckle down and I picked the football [to focus on rather than other sports].

My dad loved that I played football, it meant an awful lot to him. He supported me in every game he could. 

“It’s one of the best memories of my life with my father, he’d be there when you scored a brilliant goal and whatnot. It was a real bonding experience for us.”

Greene had early stints with Ballymun Ladies and Elm Rovers, who were national champions at the time and had a fierce rivalry going with Shamrock Rovers.

It wasn’t long, however, before the young Dubliner was ascending to an even higher level, thanks largely to a series of strong displays that impressed onlookers.

“Linda Gorman, a former manager of the Irish team, paved the way for me,” she explains. “I think it was her that had a word with a few coaches in America about me as an upcoming player on the Irish team, saying: ‘This kid is special and needs an opportunity.’ She would have been involved in some of the trials that I went to and off the back of them, I would have got serious offers.

“Laura Farrell would have been a left full, she’s still a great friend of mine and Jenny Nelson, a centre-half with Elm Rovers — they’re two Finglas women that when I got to the national level, I would have been looking at and saying: ‘Jesus, they’re fantastic footballers.’ But before getting into that realm, there wouldn’t have been any female sporting icons that I could look up to really.”

Greene promptly accepted the offer to go abroad, studying photography and the arts at the University of South Carolina in Columbia

“I absolutely loved it,” she says. “I probably should have studied medicine or something a lot more practical. But I thought: ‘I’m never going to have this opportunity again, so I need to grab it with both hands.’”

Football, however, remained the priority.

“Division One in the States is a serious step up. At that time — and I suppose still — it would be the highest level in the world for a female soccer player to go to.

Immediately, I was training with Olympic-level and world-class athletes that would have been on their national team. It was a fantastic opportunity, but a steep learning curve in terms of athleticism.”

As with many Irish teenagers who travel to play football in their teens, Greene initially suffered from homesickness.

“I’m showing my age here, but at that time, it was literally writing letters home,” she laughs.

“If you made a phone call, you probably had about 100 bucks actual free money in your pocket a month. It was a dollar a minute, which amounted to 60 dollars an hour to talk to the family, so it was a big decision to make a call home. It was a very different world.

“You’d get home maybe once a year to them at Christmas and as I got more settled, I’d come home and play the season in Shamrock Rovers and then come back over in the fall.

“It was a total culture shock at 17. A working-class kid from Finglas going over to a prestigious university — the academics, the athletics, everything was a whole different level.”

The friendships she built and a determination to reach her footballing potential got Greene through this challenging period. The Irish teen trained alongside a coterie of top-class footballers, some of whom were US internationals.

“It very much was like a professional environment, in the sense of it was ‘hurdle the weak, trample the dead’ type thing. I remember that being written in the locker room and it always stuck in my head. There really is no room [for complacency], you’re there to do a job and you’re there to do what you’re told.

“My experience was a very military-like environment. They say how high you jump and that’s it. You get a different colour tray if you want to build up your carbs, or build up weight, or build up protein and whatnot. And you’re only allowed eat certain types of food. 

“I know a lot of girls who come over from Ireland go D3, which is a very different thing. D1 is where they want the best footballers and the best athletes, and you keep up or go home. And they’ve no problem cutting anybody.

“But I loved being pushed to the absolute. You had to be on the soccer field every morning at 6am. So I don’t like training that early anymore [she laughs], because of my memories in and around that.

“We’d be training until about 7.45. Then you’d shower, go to class, come home, have some lunch, and then you had to be on the soccer field again for 3pm. You were there until about half 5, you did whatever work was needed. Then you had to be in academics, in what was called the Roost building, which was only for athletes. It’s illegal now, they can’t do it anymore, but at that time they separated the athletes to keep a close eye on them. Then you’d have to go back in and you’d have study hall.

“Sometimes you’d be back out for an evening session or a match that night. So it was tough going and if you had any weakness in the body, it was found out quite quickly.”

Even before sealing the big move to the US, Greene was a senior Irish player, though fate dictated that it was not the start of a long and successful career at international level.

The starlet was involved in games against France, Wales and Northern Ireland, but was not capped subsequently.

The likes of Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, when they were getting offered contracts with the best clubs in those times, or getting a chance to go away and improve, that was welcomed. Whereas my experience was: ‘Oh actually, you’ll just kind of mess up your chances of an international career. You have a really stark choice here. You can choose your career here, or you can choose representing your national team.’ At that stage, it’s a huge thing to throw on a young person’s shoulders, that kind of choice. In terms of opportunities here in the early ’90s, there weren’t many of them floating around for wannabe female professional footballers. So there was no choice for me if I wanted to test myself at the highest level.

“It hurts. It’s a killer. I still feel that sting in my heart in terms of the amount of caps [I didn't win]. If there was any kind of infrastructure or systematic sporting support for young girls at that time, it would have been a very different international experience, because I was going and playing with the best.

“I remember we were playing the University of Georgia in ’99. The American team were in town.

“The Irish women’s team happened to be playing [against the US], but they were nowhere near in terms of athleticism. The American girls would take it seriously, because of [the system] in America, even though it’s still not fully equitable in terms of women in sport. But they did have greater financial support and more structural opportunities in terms of where they could go to be better athletes. And you had an education wherever it was.

“Whereas [the Irish] girls were working full-time. It’s the same old scenario. You’re working full time and trying to compete against girls that are training full-time. It’s a very different kettle of fish.”

image6 Greene pictured playing at USC, Colombia, a top 10 women’s D1 collegiate team in US soccer.

After finishing university, Greene spent a couple of years playing pro soccer with Portland Rain as well as a stint at Maxwell in San Diego, before returning to Ireland for good in 2000 and lighting up the domestic game, enjoying spells with Shamrock Rovers, UCD and Tolka Rovers, while winning 14 national titles in total. Sadly, seemingly because of that initial controversy, her Irish career ended before it really began. 

“It was strange, because when I came home and I was playing with Shamrock Rovers, I was the leading goalscorer, MVP and we won nine national titles. So it’s like: ‘Well, who else is getting the [Irish] jersey?’ It was very frustrating. If you’re one of the best on the best team winning everything, who are the kids that are getting opportunities? Are they like ‘yes men’ so to speak, or what is it?

“Even when Shamrock Rovers went into a state of decline then, I was studying at UCD and their team asked me if I’d come onboard as a player-coach. I accepted, but then I realised actually there were a few years left in me as a footballer, I’d rather just focus on my football.

“I was the captain and the leading goalscorer and we actually took the title, which Shamrock Rovers, my old team, had held for years.

It sounds bizarre, but it seems like as soon as I made that choice for America, my ambition to wear the Irish shirt was taken off me. It’s sad, because I was so proud to have worn it, I loved wearing it.”

And while it ultimately did not result in international recognition, Greene has no regrets over her decision to come home.

“At that time, I was interested in going on with my studies and doing a postgraduate degree. I’d been training solidly in America for seven years at that stage. It was taking its toll on my body. The training over there is really tough. I was getting increasingly Americanised and I thought: ‘If I don’t make a break now and go home, I’m going to be staying in America for the rest of my days.’

“My family are my everything. And in hindsight, it was the right thing to do. I only had a few years with my dad then. He passed away in 2008, but it meant that he got to see me playing football for another few years here.”

Check out part 2 of our interview with Dr Linda Greene next week, where we discuss life after football as well as her PhD on elite lesbian athletes in Ireland and the invisibility they have historically endured. Her art site is www.lindagreeneartist.com.

- Originally published at 09.00 

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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