We interviewed Alice Harkness ahead of representing Northern Ireland at the Futsal Euros.
What do you hope the impact can be of this first home nations women's team?
"Hopefully the impact of competing and hosting the first ever UEFA Women's Futsal EURO will be huge for us as individual players, for the squad, for the Irish Football Association (Irish FA) and of course for the sport.
These will be our first international matches together and it's important for us to know this is just the start of our international journey as a squad. With three fixtures against Belgium, Sweden and Netherlands, there will be so many learning and development opportunities but we are heading into the tournament aiming to progress from the group, to compete on the international stage and represent Northern Ireland. Hosting the tournament will provide a platform to showcase women's futsal and hopefully the competition will increase awareness of the sport, increase domestic participation, and support for our women's international team. Hopefully we can fill the venue with home support and generate some excitement around women's futsal in Northern Ireland."
Why do you think football federations are so slow to support and develop women's futsal?
"Certainly in Northern Ireland, this hasn't been the case. The Irish FA have backed the creation and development of our women's international futsal squad, with our squad's establishment and competition in UEFA competitions being key objectives within the 2016-20 'Irish FA Futsal Strategy'.
The desire to grow the sport within our country can only be highlighted as we prepare to host a group within the preliminary round of the upcoming UEFA Women's Futsal EURO 2019. Our coaching staff (Keith Gibson, Nadene Murphy, Tuda Murphy and Jackie Blyth) and all the staff involved at the Irish FA have been working incredibly hard to get us ready to compete on the international stage and it's great to work with people who are passionate about the development of the futsal and of course, women's futsal. We're also just coming out of a training camp this weekend, which was held alongside our men's international futsal team, it was fantastic to be able to see the backing and support from our men's team and their coaching staff, which just epitomised the vision which the Irish FA are trying to create, and the growth of our international squads and the Northern Ireland futsal family.
For me, I'm incredibly proud to know that we are the first home nation to establish a women's team, and compete within the first ever UEFA women's international futsal competition. I think it's difficult for me to really know why we are the only home nation entering a team in the first UEFA Women's Futsal EURO, and why the same opportunities aren't existing to other players across the UK. I hope that the competition encourage the other home nations federations and the FAI to look to establish women's international teams. It would be great to see the development of the sport across the UK and Ireland, and opportunities for women's futsal players to represent their country"
What are the challenges and what needs to be done to grow women's futsal in England?
"The development of the existing national league structure and competition, improving coverage and exposure of the existing clubs and leagues, and encouraging other opportunities for women in futsal, e.g. refereeing or coaching.
Also, clubs creating participation opportunities for young female players to experience futsal. But providing the opportunity for this to be as a sport in its own, rather than as only a development opportunity for football, and to provide pathways for young female players to progress through futsal if they choose to do so. I know that there are ambitions at Tranmere to create a girls futsal academy, which will be massively important to the long term development and sustainability of the club. There are of course many challenges that clubs will face, but it is important that they are supported to try and overcome these challenges to grow the profile of the sport.
I learnt my trade playing for Northumbria University whilst I was at University. I was lucky to be involved in one of the most successful University futsal set-ups, I played alongside some incredibly talented futsal players and worked under some fantastic coaching staff, including Michael Gunn, Hannah Marshall and Northern Ireland men's futsal captain, Adam Barr, who were all key drivers in the development of the sport at University and my love for the game. Our squad won three consecutive BUCS Championships between 2013-16, the highest level of competition in University sport in England, and whilst our coaching staff have been able to carry on within the game, the majority of our women's team no longer play futsal because of the limited opportunities available to compete at a good standard within their region. I have played with and against many University players who spent three or four years learning the sport, gaining expertise in the sport and then have been unable to carry on competing because of the limited opportunities. Even within the North division of The FA's National Futsal League clubs are only based within the North West. In the future I would love to see the growth of clubs beyond these already established areas, and involvement within National League competitions.
The development of the domestic structure also needs to be reflected within the development of the international structures. Providing and promoting the opportunity for women to represent their country through futsal will inevitably increase domestic participation, and indeed the profile of our sport. I know that there may be several challenges and barrier to doing this. But as evidenced by the Irish FA, with investment and backing from key individuals, this can happen. As a player, my ultimate ambition is to compete at the highest standard I can, and I'm sure there are many English women's futsal players with the same ambitions. I hope that I have the opportunity to play against England in the future."
"Heading into the competition, I can't thank all of those coaching staff and players involved across my six years of playing futsal in helping me get to this point. I particularly want to say a massive thanks to Matt Fejos and all the staff at Tranmere for the support and opportunities provided through the club, all my teammates on the women's team, and the men's team for welcoming me in throughout pre-season to help prepare for the competition."
Coverage of all of Northern Ireland's UEFA Women's Futsal EURO 2019 preliminary round matches to be on the BBC red button;
- Northern Ireland v Belgium, Tuesday 21st August at Newry Leisure Centre, 19:00 KO
- Northern Ireland v Sweden, Wednesday 22nd August at Newry Leisure Centre, 19:00 KO
- Netherlands v Northern Ireland, Friday 24th August at Newry Leisure Centre, 19:00 KO
Only the group winner will qualify from the group, and will join Russia, Slovenia and Croatia (hosts) in the main round which is due to be held on 11th-16th September.