Derry City Women defender Kathryn Canavan admits she has been taken aback by the quality of the Danske Bank Women’s Premiership, following her switch from Leyton Orient this year.
Canavan was a teenage star locally at local side Institute and she represented Northern Ireland at Under-17, Under-18 and Under-19 level.
Aged 18, she left for university and studying medicine at Norwich, initially playing for University of East Anglia before moving to London and joining Leyton Orient - then under the name KIKK Utd - in 2015.
Now she has returned to Derry, having signed up for the Candystripes earlier this year, and insists the standard locally has risen dramatically in recent years.
“The standard now in the top-flight here is so good, I had no idea how strong the teams were,” Canavan explain.
“I had played against a lot of the top teams in England both in the league and cup competitions, but I was not expecting the level here to be as close to that as it is.
“The standard really is unbelievable, because you’re coming up against Northern Ireland international starters every week - that is the level.
“There are number of players at teams who I’m familiar with from when I played with Institute a decade ago, so there are quite a few sides here who have played alongside each other for so long.”
Canavan is a defender comfortable with the ball at her feet and is known for playing out from the back and often running into an advanced position herself to build attacks.
She is also now aged 31 and brings a great wealth of experienced to a young and newly-assembled team.
“This is such a young team, but it is a really new side as well,” she continued.
“The Inishowen League collapsed last year so we were able to sign a lot of really talented players who are based in Donegal.
“But the enforced six-month break really did hit us hard because we needed time to gel as a team and to form a cohesive understanding, which most other sides already have.
“For a while we were only have one training session per week, but the improvement since the greater regularity in training and combining that with matches has been really notable.”
This was always going to be a difficult season for Derry City, but they have established themselves a top-level club in Northern Ireland and regularly compete with the best sides in the country.
“Belfast clubs have always been ahead of the rest in Northern Irish terms,” added Canavan.
“When I was playing in the Northern Irish youth teams, it was always dominated by Belfast-based girls and the clubs there had greater facilities available and were ahead in that respect.
“But clubs in other areas have developed a lot recently, you just have to look at what Sion Swifts are doing at the moment and we are trying to emulate that progress - it’s important for the city and the area to have a team competing with the best in Northern Ireland.”
Despite losing their opening three games, there are signs of progress for Kevin McLaughlin’s side and, without the possibility of relegation this year, the pressure for immediate results - and the opportunity for long-term growth - exists.
“Kevin has a very clear vision of how he wants us to play,”
“I have not played with a manager with such a strong style and a coherent message, he has very precise ideas in how he wants us to play.
“You can see how clearly his coaching is improving players not just on an individual level but collectively as how we understand each other.
“You saw that particularly in our performance at Cliftonville, which was a game that could have gone either way but they took their chances and we did not.
“Unless we get the basics right, he won’t let us focus on anything else until he sees the improvement in the areas we need to be getting right.
“We just need time to figure out how to play together and work into what Kevin is trying to do.
“This season is one where we work on a long-term plan and don’t have any added pressures on getting that right.”
Derry take on Sion Swifts this Wednesday night in the Danske Bank Women’s Premiership.