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The Irish international who emigrated to Thailand

Sophie Perry on leaving football in England behind to work and set up an academy abroad.

Sophie Perry has won 46 caps for Ireland.
Sophie Perry has won 46 caps for Ireland.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

SOPHIE PERRY IS quick to reject suggestions that she has retired from playing.

At 33, you suspect her days competing with Ireland and in the Women’s Super League could be over.

But then, stranger things have happened. Since Vera Pauw took charge, both Áine O’Gorman and Julie-Ann Russell have returned to the Irish squad having previously been out of the picture.

“I haven’t come in to contact with [Vera] or spoken with her, so I’m not really sure if she’s aware [of my status], but I’m not playing at the moment, I’m just coaching,” Perry tells The42.

Asked if she could ever see herself wearing the green jersey or playing in the Women’s Super League again, the 46-times-capped international responds: “Who knows what could happen?”

Perry has other priorities now though. Last June, the full-back’s Brighton contract expired. The obvious response would be to sign for another team. However, she ended up taking a less conventional route.

The defender had recently received her Uefa B license and felt compelled to take the next step in coaching. 

“I love different cultures and Thailand, I’m not sure why, but I just had a pull towards that country,” Perry explains.

I wanted a new challenge. I wanted something different. And I think coming out to Thailand has definitely been a big challenge for me, getting used to the culture, the way they play football out here as a coach and it’s a big thing coming out to a place where you don’t know anybody and you have to become very independent.

“People out here are lovely and everyone’s been so welcome, so I’ve really settled.”

In England, Perry — apart from the last year when the league went professional and she had to give her other job — had been balancing playing football with a career as a PE teacher, and she is also now teaching full time near her base in Pattaya at St Andrews International School, Green Valley.

And not only is she coaching in her spare time, Perry has in fact set up Piing Academy, which as well as Thai footballers, includes players from Italy, England, Germany and the Netherlands.

“I wanted to keep myself busy [when I arrived in Thailand], have a hobby and see if there was any local football teams around,” she says. “I researched on Google to see what the local teams were and there was nothing. I was so surprised there were no opportunities for girls to play — no local teams, no training sessions. So from that, I had in my head that I was going to create opportunities for local girls in the community.

“The response has been amazing. It’s really hard to build something here. Everybody lives so far away. It’s not just like you live in a local area. People live 30 minutes or an hour away. I spoke to quite a few people and said: ‘There are no academies around here, no girls football around here, why?’ They said they’ve tried to create some things, but it’s never really worked out.

It was a challenge for me and I had a little look around the local area, found a facility and then within a month, I tried to put up a lot of posters. Out here, they don’t really use the internet too much, it’s word-of-mouth and things like that. But at the moment we have over 40 girls in the academy, which runs from age eight all the way up to senior. We had our first competitive tournament, just after Christmas, which was brilliant. It was their first competitive tournament as a team and they did really well in that.

“The girls travel from all over to come along to the academy, which shows the commitment and the desire to play.

“There are no leagues out here either, so we’re looking to create the first girls football league in Thailand. Obviously, it’s at a halt with everything that’s going on, but it’s looking very promising.”

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Young players in Thailand are more accustomed to playing seven-a-side football, so Perry has been introducing them to 11-a-side games, with hopes that some will eventually go on to play at a higher level and perhaps even make it as professionals.

“I do my own training sessions in the week in the evenings and I do one-to-one sessions as well,” she adds. “It is quite tough to balance it, but I do really enjoy the coaching. It’s a release for me, because I’m obviously not playing now.

“As I was growing up, during the non-professional days, I would be going to work, I would be teaching all day, then I would go to train at night-times. That’s just what it used to be like before it turned professional [in the WSL]. So I’m used to the balance where I would work all the day and go off and train. Now, I work all day and go off and coach.”

Perry also has no regrets about leaving the WSL behind and can envisage staying in Thailand to grow the game for the “next couple of years” at least.

“It was one of those decisions where I could carry on playing at another side, but Brighton was my childhood club. I wouldn’t have wanted to play for any other team.”

If the 4-0 defeat to Poland in October 2018 does prove to be her final cap, Perry — who qualifiers to represent the Girls in Green through her Irish-born father — can still look back at a decent career at international level, the high point of which was probably completing 90 minutes in the memorable 0-0 draw away to reigning European champions Holland amid an important World Cup qualifier in November 2017.

“I used to get grief, they used to call me a ‘plastic Paddy’. I was like, well actually my dad’s Irish, not my grandparents. But they were only joking.

I was at Chelsea at the time and I played for England U23s. It got to that point where there wasn’t a lot of progression moving into the senior team. They had some very experienced players at the time and there wasn’t much flexibility. I remember my manager, Matt Beard, he said: ‘I’ll contact Ireland and send over some footage of you and we’ll see where we go from there.’ He wanted me to play international football and said ‘you need to be playing’. It was Sue Ronan that was manager at the time. She gave me my opportunity and invited me over. I remember it was an in-house game against Northern Ireland. She was impressed and then there was a camp a month later that I was in and the rest is history really. I’m grateful for the opportunity Sue gave me.”

And despite the growth of the women’s game in recent times coinciding with the end rather than the start of her career, Perry still feels privileged to have played at such a high level.

“I was lucky, because when the girls’ game did grow and turn professional, I was still playing, so I’m happy I experienced that. To see the game grow so quickly — well, I say ‘quickly,’ it has taken a while. But I’m in Thailand and I’m able to watch girls’ football, which is great. You wouldn’t have been able to do that 10 years ago, or even three years ago.

“The way the girls’ game is growing and the investment that’s being put in by big organisations, look at the WSL — Barclays are investing in it — so the game is going in the right direction and hopefully it will be sustainable and it will inspire the younger generation.

“It’s great now that you have girls at school that can aspire to be professional footballers. When I was at school, I would always say I wanted to be a professional footballer, but it wasn’t realistic, it was something that wasn’t even thought about [by most people]. But now, the opportunity is there for kids.”

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Paul Fennessy

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