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'I remember seeing the kit and I was just overwhelmed. I wasn’t Tara the addict or the homeless person...'

Footballer's pride at call-up after World Cup

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Tara McNeill

Tara McNeill

ON THE BALL: Tara McNeill

ON THE BALL: Tara McNeill

The Ireland men’s team

The Ireland men’s team

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Tara McNeill

When Tara McNeill walked into her hotel room and saw the Ireland jersey bearing her name, she was overcome with emotion.

In the darkest days of her homelessness and addiction, never had she dared dream that one day she would represent her country.

The sight of her kit brought home to her how much she had achieved. She was about to play soccer in the Homeless World Cup, an international tournament for people who have experienced homelessness.

"I remember seeing the kit and I was just overwhelmed. It just hit me that this is real, that this was how far I had come. I wasn't Tara the addict or the homeless person. To see your name and realise you're representing your country."

That moment is depicted in a new documentary which opens in Irish cinemas on September 25. Street Leagues chronicles the journey of the Irish men's and women's teams as they head for the Homeless World Cup in Norway.

All profits from the film, produced by top Irish company Bankhouse Productions, will go to Street Leagues.

The movie features contributions from Irish actor Colin Farrell, who is a Homeless World Cup ambassador and patron of Irish Street Leagues.

Manager

For the women, it's their first time representing Ireland, joining the men's team that has been taking part in tournaments for a number of years.

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ON THE BALL: Tara McNeill

ON THE BALL: Tara McNeill

ON THE BALL: Tara McNeill

Its origins go back almost 20 years, when Sean Kavanagh, manager of Ireland's Big Issue magazine, organised weekly five-a-side games for people who were homeless.

Tara, who was at that time playing football with male friends through Dublin's Simon Community, first heard of the new women's Street Leagues through them.

"It took me a few weeks to summon up the courage. At first I was fearful because I was in recovery. The lads in Dublin Simon Community knew me. But I just kept going down each Saturday and the girls were great.

"My head was nearly down on the ground at first, but I gradually started to build up confidence."

The movie came about after producer Matthew Toman was introduced to Sean Kavanagh by Carly Hamilton, who was working with Street Leagues and is executive producer on the film.

"As soon as I met Sean that was it, I knew it was a story we had to tell. I think audiences will see the work being done for people who've found themselves on the bottom rung of the ladder.

"I hope it will make people think about addiction, to see the struggles that people are going through and how there is a road out of it. Street Leagues gives hope to people who don't have much hope, and it gives them a sense of purpose, a chance to move forward. As Sean Kavanagh says, a ball can save a life. Sport, and a love for it, is a common ground."

The standard of football at the international tournament is very high, and places competitive, and Tara's skills and fitness got her a place in the team.

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The Ireland men’s team

The Ireland men’s team

The Ireland men’s team

"The training is full on, it's probably the fittest I've ever been," she said. "It gave me that passion back and gave me the fire in my belly. It added to the tools I'd developed to help me stay clean and sober."

It was a long road back. Tara had struggled with drug and alcohol addiction in her twenties, and it would be almost two decades before she could fully turn her life around.

She ended up homeless and not in contact with her family, although she emphasises that it was she who chose to stay away and they were always there for her.

Although she had turned her life around with the help of support services - "I don't even smoke any more. My life has totally changed," she says - football helped her build a confidence dented by years of struggle.

"I remember getting the call: 'You're going to Norway' - I couldn't believe it. My dad Frank and my family were so proud of me. They were in the airport waiting to cheer me when we came back and they had a party for me before we went away," said the Dubliner.

Skills

The ladies team had an exceptional debut and as well as ending up mid-table despite being seeded against the top teams, they were voted best newcomers by organisers.

"It's being part of something you love. Every week you could see you were getting better and picking up new skills. We went in as newcomers, ranked low, so we got seeded against the top teams. Chile said they never met opposition like us."

Tara has put her ball skills to good use. She has trained to coach and studied sports, fitness and education in association with the FAI and the Adult Education Training Board. She is hoping to use these skills to gain employment, though Covid-19 has made it more challenging.

She says it was the supports which helped her turn her life around. "I met a girl in Focus Ireland who linked me into Dublin Simon.

"There was a woman there who believed in me and I don't think she knows how she helped me. There are people who put you on a path at a certain time in life and you get that break."

She is grateful to her family for their support - and reckons she could hold a unique record. I think I'm the only nan in Ireland to get an Ireland cap! I don't think many people get capped as a granny."

l Street Leagues opens in cinemas on September 25.

Irish Independent