Cliftonville Ladies defender Toni-Leigh Finnegan has explained how Danske Bank Women Premiership stars put club rivalries aside to spur on Northern Ireland to international success.
The 18-year-old defender is one of 15 players from the league - spread across five clubs - to be included in the latest international side, alongside Reds club captain Marissa Callaghan.
Finnegan has quickly grown into a key player at Solitude and is a standout member of the upcoming generation of talent through the league - she is one of seven teenage stars from the division to be in this international squad.
“We’re rivals on the pitch all season at club level, but when you’re a player it’s totally different away from that and when you’re together at international level, everything just clicks,” Finnegan explained.
“There’s a really good atmosphere in the dressing room and there’s a great balance in the squad too, we know that we all help improve ourselves too and you can see that in the results.”
This is the fourth time the defender has been called up to the international setup and she believes the experiences are invaluable as helping her grow as a player.
Not only does she learn from club teammate Callaghan, but central defensive stalwarts Ashley Hutton and Julie Nelson - of Linfield and Crusaders respectively, who have both clocked up over 100 international appearances - act as an inspiration.
“Marissa has been coaching me since I was a nine-year-old and I’ve always wanted to reach the level she has been at,” Finnegan added.
“Positionally at international level, Ashley and Julie are players who are an inspiration because of the careers they have had, that’s exactly what you look at and learn from as a young player.
“It’s not just about their level of performance on the pitch and how the play in that sense, but what you can learn from them off the pitch too.
“In training those players are pushing the younger girls hard every week and they always take the time to show us what to do and talk us through situations on how we can improve.
“That is the level you want to be and it’s what you look up to.”
Hutton, Nelson and Callaghan have been long-standing stars both in the Danske Bank Women’s Premiership and at international level, but the future for both is in safe hands.
“Obviously, it’s great for so many youngsters to be getting this experience at international level,” continued Finnegan.
“These games and training sessions we are involved in is brilliant experience for all of us, and it gives us all the platform to develop and grow together.
“We have learned a lot from the established players but ultimately those are the players you are aiming to replace in the long-run, so that pressure helps us thrive and it motivates us too.”
Finnegan’s international recognition has come amidst a difficult season for Cliftonville, who are fifth in the standings and have secured just one victory to date this campaign.
“This has been a really tough season at Cliftonville, a lot has gone against us,” continued Finnegan.
“We have had a lot of injuries, there have been a lot of players having to self-isolate and we have also had red cards in quite a few of our games.
“We have a really young team and most of the players are learning how to play at a senior level, so there needs to be patience on that front, and the important thing is they’re progressing every week.
“The coaches here are giving us really great sessions and they’re all different to help us all develop.
“The mood is really positive at the moment and the coaches are given us more confidence on the pitch, so we are looking ahead to cup competitions now.”