The 2021 Danske Bank Women’s Premiership season gets underway later this month and this campaign promises to be more exciting than ever.
It has been an off-season of change off the pitch at Cliftonville Ladies, who have appointed a new management team in a bid to make the Reds a major force in the women’s game.
The North Belfast side finished last campaign in a disappointing fifth-placed position, but they have overhauled their structure in a bid to transform their fortunes.
John McGrady has been appointed first-team coach with Marty Douglas the new Head of Women’s Football at the club.
Experienced player Clare Carson has joined the coaching staff with Stuart Irvine in as the goalkeeping coach while Brendan Lynch is also involved in first-team coaching.
McGrady explains: “The club made a decision to relaunch the women’s team with a new project and structure.
“We came in as a management team towards the end of last season and we saw the talent that was in the ranks, and we knew there was something to build upon.
“However, what we identified straight away was that there were a lot of small things that were missing in terms of professionalism that we had taken for granted in men’s football.
“This is the first time the Cliftonville women’s team now have a management team - it’s not just one person overseeing it but is a structure in place with five of us managing separating elements of it.
“We are in the process of changing the culture at the club and providing a stability and management team that is similar to the leading women’s sides here.
“This is the highest standard you can play at in this country, and it should be a privilege and an honour for those players - we want to provide a pathway for young girls into the league and hopefully into the international side.
“Women’s football in Northern Ireland is really on the up, both in terms of the domestic game and the international side of things - we know Cliftonville have a huge role to play in that.”
Northern Ireland captain Marissa Callaghan is synonymous with the Cliftonville side and is now entering her 16th successive season with the first-team squad.
The multi-tasking Callaghan has also been involved with coaching first-team players and as academy director, but McGrady stresses her professionalism and ability is a benchmark for the squad.
“Marissa is a role model for anyone who wants to enjoy a career in football, male or female,” the boss added.
“We have seen how she has been in training in the past four or six months - the work ethic and dedication is the standard we want to set.
“She has been instrumental across two decades for Cliftonville as a club and for Northern Ireland too - any player can learn from her.
“She is so good at looking after our players and liaising with the coaches, it’s really important for all the players but for us too in terms of getting our messages across and running smoothly.”
35-year-old Callaghan is not the only Northern Ireland international at Solitude, with teenage defender Toni-Leigh Finnegan breaking into Kenny Shiels’ recent squad.
Aged just 18, the Reds youth product is the latest example of a promising player developed through a youth academy to become influential for club and country.
“Toni-Leigh is developing into a leader, that is obvious despite her age,” raved McGrady.
“She is someone who keeps wanting to learn more and find out what she can be doing better and how to improve herself.
“Toni-Leigh is indicative of how the culture at the club is changing and she shows the younger players coming through that there is a massive opportunity to replicate her successes.”
Cliftonville have secured the signings of Northern Ireland Under-19 youth internationals Grace McKimm and Shona Davis - from Linfield and Glentoran respectively - and are hopeful of adding more players to their first-team squad.
“We are hoping of adding more quality in before the season gets underway,” confirmed McGrady.
“Due to the dynamics of the game here, all clubs are competing for the same players so you need to be offering a project which convinces them this is the right place for their development and earning successes.
“We know the standard we are at it and we know that we have to improve - player recruitment and improving the young players at the club are both pivotal in that and we have a lot to look ahead to.”
McKimm and Davis take the Reds tally at international Under-19 level up to seven - along with Lauren Welsh, Fi Morgan, Abbie McHenry, Rachel Norney and Erin Montgomery - hinting at a bright future for the club.
The Reds have struggled to hit the heights that secured them a runners-up spot five seasons ago but with a new setup off the pitch and culture at the club, they may be on the right track to becoming a major force once more.