'I was glad that I could turn negatives into something positive. After it, I felt like I could do anything'

Shelbourne star Izzy Atkinson on dreaming big, being positive and loving football ahead of this evening’s league title decider against Peamount.

izzy Shelbourne star Izzy Atkinson. Source: Shelbourne FC.

IZZY ATKINSON WILL do everything in her power to end this rollercoaster year on a high later today, and there’s no hiding her excitement for what lies ahead.

The 19-year-old sensation and her Shelbourne side have a golden chance to lift the Women’s National League [WNL] title, all they need to do is win [KO 6pm, live on FAI TV]. But reigning champions Peamount United stand in their way, and it’s a winner-takes-all clash with both sides’ title ambitions well and truly alive.

Atkinson, in her fourth year with Shels, knows exactly what’s at stake, but it’s exactly where she and her side want to be as they chase a first league crown since 2016.

“I am absolutely buzzing,” she tells The42, her excitement on the other end of the phone palpable from the word go. ”It’s literally the most excited I’ve been for a game in years.

“For Shels, it’s the most excited I’ve been. It’s also probably the biggest chance we have to win the league, it’s in our hands. Obviously, it’s our last game but I think in the past few years we’ve played on the last day.

“Whereas it’s actually us for the first time that don’t have another game after. It’s more in our hands, in my opinion, because obviously we just have one game to focus on where the other teams have two. Honestly I’m just so excited and fingers crossed it all goes to plan.”

That’s the hope alright but at the end of the 90 minutes, whatever way it goes, Atkinson will be smiling. While football means so much to her, she also realises how unimportant it can be in the grand scheme of things. 

In lockdown 1.0, the Dubliner undertook a tall challenge to run 100km in seven days, raising funds and awareness for cancer in doing so. “I hope to turn the bad things I’ve experienced into something positive,” as she wrote on Twitter beforehand.

Atkinson smashed her target, going the distance in just six days and raising €1685 along the way. It was a fantastic achievement, made even sweeter in a difficult time, and the highlight of her year, as she says herself.

“I lost a few family members to cancer, including my dog as well, that was during corona,” Atkinson explains.

“This mad, crazy year, it’s the weirdest year ever with lockdown. You know when you just feel everyone’s mood around is down, everyone was in the blues. I was just like, ‘What else would I be doing other than sitting down?’ I just thought about it, what could I do to make my family proud?’

“It made me feel better, I was glad that I could turn negatives into something positive. I just love helping people. It just makes me happy that I could have helped someone and they wouldn’t have been in the situation that we lost people and stuff.”

“Obviously during lockdown as well I was inside so it was good for my fitness too,” she adds. “I was happy out to just help people and make use of things. I actually really enjoyed it as well.

“It sounds weird because it was only six days but I really, really developed as a person. I gained so much confidence. I realised a lot because obviously when you wake up every day, I had to do probably around 15k minimum, and in my head I had to do it.

“That’s probably the equivalent of playing six or seven games in-a-row. I had to be strong mentally as well. After it, I felt like I could actually do anything. I was really proud of myself and so was my family so yeah, it was really good.”

So now, Atkinson certainly feels like she and her Shels team-mates can do the business away from home at Greenogue. The Reds have enjoyed a successful season thus far, their only points dropped against today’s opposition and a draw with Galway.

But a recent 5-0 in the West over the latter has them in good stead heading into tonight’s title decider, and it came as a huge statement.

The teenager’s confidence shines through as she details Shels campaign to date, how they’re aiming to finish on a high and how they have the ideal blend of youth and experience — the younger cohort having matured massively of late — in the set-up. 

pearl-slattery-dejected-after-the-game Peamount captain Pearl Slattery dejected after Peamount beat Shels in 2018. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

She really, genuinely feels that her team can do anything against Peamount.

“I mean, credit to them, they’ve bet us twice this year when we played them. I’d say they’re the favourites on the outside. I kind of like that idea though of also being the underdog.

“I just think in our heads, they’re not the favourites. But obviously both teams are going to be confident going in. And we’re so confident. we’ve been training so well the past few weeks.

“Our past two games, beating Galway 5-0 and Cork 4-0, I think it just shows that we kind of had a dip and now we’re going back up. We’re on that rise now and we’re just getting up and up. So hopefully, we stay on top of form like we’ve been doing.”

Atkinson has been in stellar form herself, thoroughly enjoying her new position at full-back, against the odds, and offering her team a welcome attacking platform. “Everyone thought that I wasn’t enjoying it because they were like, ‘Izzy a defender?,’” she laughs.

A natural winger who hadn’t played anywhere else beforehand, she’s made a smooth transition to the back and the move is reaping its benefits for Dave Bell and his management team. That said, she’d happily line out anywhere on the pitch.

While Shels struggled to take their chances and score goals at points this year, they’ve been clinical of late — just in time for the big one. And that pleases Atkinson, who’s been getting in on the act too and is hoping to made it third time lucky against Peas in 2020.

“Well, I’ve only scored three goals, it’s not that much,” she grins.

Three good ones, though…

“Yeah, I mean I was happy with my one against Bohs anyway. It was probably one of the best goals I’ve scored. Honestly, I’ve never really said, ‘You need to score to have a good game.’ Genuinely, I would rather assist my team-mate and let them score and we win as a team than score.

“In my opinion scoring is only about five seconds of the game putting the ball in the net. There’s 90 minutes in a game. I mean I’m glad I scored the goals… I wouldn’t give out if I scored on Saturday!”

Another thing she certainly won’t give out about is the vast international experience she has gathered of late, and the backing she’s gotten from Irish boss Vera Pauw. 

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Atkinson has been named in numerous extended squads over the past few months and has been a constant fixture at home-based training sessions. While others would be disappointed not to make the cut for final squads, she certainly isn’t put out.

Every step on that front is a step in the right direction. A step closer to where she wants to be: “The way I look at it, I was in the extended squad the past two times, and I wasn’t in the 23 then. I’m one of those people that I don’t really take negatives as negatives.

“That negative to me isn’t a negative, it’s actually positive that I was in the 30 and now I have to work to get in the 23. So it motivates me. I’m like, ‘If I’m that close to the 23, then I couldn’t be too far if I keep working and keep pushing myself.’

“I just think if someone’s in the final 30, they’re going to be a lot more motivated than not being at all. So I’m just really grateful to be in the final 30. And I’m just going to keep pushing myself.”

While Atkinson mapped her rise at length in an article with The42 last year, her deep and unerring love for football and how she’s living her dream, it’s only fitting we find out what’s next.

She’s currently undertaking an Arts degree at Maynooth University, studying psychology and Irish and hoping to go down the primary school teaching path afterwards.

She knows how important it is to have a backup plan and to have something to lean on away from football, but Atkinson is one to dream big. And why shouldn’t she?

isibeal-atkinson Atkinson at the Aviva Soccer Sisters Launch in March 2019. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I mean, the next goal hopefully… I want to be a professional footballer, it’s what I’ve always wanted to be. Obviously I’m studying in Maynooth now but as bad as it sounds, I’d put football above it in a heartbeat. If I got a call later… it’s just the way I am.

“It sounds kind of bad, but I think the reason why I’m in Maynooth is because obviously I’m playing football here in Ireland. If I’m going to be here in Ireland, I should be studying. I’m still just gonna keep pushing myself and I’m really, really hoping in the next few years, hopefully that I’ll be in a professional environment.

“It’s all I’ve wanted to do, and it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do since I was literally, I’d say about six. I’m just going to keep dreaming and hopefully it goes to plan.”

No doubt she will.

But this chapter in the amateur Irish league continues today, and this opportunity to take the crown is one Atkinson and her side will hope to grab with both hands. Win and it’s theirs, lose or draw and it’s more than likely Peamount’s again.

There’s so much on the line, but Atkinson wouldn’t have it any other way.

That’s what football is all about, after all. And likewise, life in general.

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Emma Duffy

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