Twelve hours after helping Cliftonville Ladies reach the Women’s Premiership League Cup final, Grace McKimm was in her exam hall finishing her A levels.
The night before, the teenager had been at the heart of a grueling two-hour semi-final encounter against Lisburn Ladies, which went all the way to a penalty shootout.
McKimm epitomises the work rate and dedication of stars across the Danske Bank Women’s Premiership who have to combine tiring training sessions and matches with studying, exams and the pressures of day-to-day life.
The 18-year-olds parents go to all her games and knew something was not right when McKimm played in the Reds recent league win over the same opponents. “Nobody else knew, but that night I was reciting information in my head,” McKimm explained. “I had two exams the very next day!”
The talented left-back has been one of the Reds impressive young stars this campaign, helping them to winning all seven of their opening league matches and reaching the upcoming Women’s Premiership League Cup final – in which they will face Sion Swifts Ladies.
She initially joined the North Belfast club from Linfield Ladies at the start of the previous year but missed the entirety of that campaign through injury – but she has come back with a roar this campaign.
“Every single player is fighting to show that we are deserving of our place in the team,” she explains, with the Reds missing all eight of their senior Northern Ireland internationals for the League Cup games.
“Our first team is almost all international players, but we want to show that if any of them are not available for whatever reason – we can step up and there is no need to worry. Sometimes the younger players feel that extra pressure because we feel like we do not want to let those senior players down. We want to prove to them that is the level we can reach too.”
It is not just at senior international level where the Reds are omni-present; McKimm is one of a number of stars in the Under-19 setup alongside Fi Morgan, Rachael Norney, Erin Montgomery, Abbie McHenry and Shona Davis.
Morgan – whose two goals downed Glentoran Women in their League Cup run – is now involved in the senior setup. McKimm adds: “Me, Fi, Rachael, Abbie, Erin and Shona have all been involved in those international youth sides.
“All those girls made me feel so much more comfortable as soon as I joined, because for me – it was such a rivalry facing Cliftonville when I was with Linfield. It could have been a move that was a lot more intimidating than it was had it not been for me knowing half a dozen players as teammates.
“Then as soon as I joined, the McGuinness sisters joined, then Louise McDaniel, then Kelsie Burrows, then Danielle Maxwell, then Abbie Magee – it is a non-stop stream of internationals arriving.”
And the Reds signing a plethora of senior internationals has transformed the side’s ambitions, as McKimm explains: “You learn so much in every match – honestly, it takes me by surprise!
“It is not so much the technical stuff but the other side of the game that you aren’t really taught in youth football; when to relax in games, when to slow the game down, to conserve energy, to manage the game.
“A lot of it is subconscious too; when you are walking out onto the pitch and you are surrounded by ten internationals, you feel instantly that you are a better player and feel like you are one of those seniors. Playing with those senior internationals is honestly a dream – it feels like you are part of the Northern Ireland international team.”
Those senior internationals will not be involved in the upcoming final against Sion Swifts Ladies on Wednesday 29 June, to be staged at the Blanchflower Stadium – home of H&W Welders. For this young Cliftonville side, dominated by teenagers, it is a huge moment.
“It is so exciting for all of us because not many of us have experience of winning trophies and those are the moments any player will remember in their career,” added McKimm.
“Being in any final is such a big occasion but this will be our first as a team and being at a new venue with so much focus on the game and women’s football generally makes such a big impact.
“Our goalkeeper Rachael (Norney) deserves so much credit – she pulled off a cracking save and she is the reason we are going to the final. Lisburn could easily have been the team preparing for this final and that sharpens our minds even more to find our top form.”
For McKimm and her teammates this game is significant not just as it is their first ever final and opportunity of senior silverware, but to showcase the outstanding crop of teenagers who are on track for long and successful careers with club and country.