Former Lebanese women's football captain leading the charge for Newcastle United Women's FC

Myriam Neaimeh is hoping she can boost the North East's female football prospects, as well as renewable technology

Mike Urwin Newcastle United women's football team pictured at a tactics training session at Northumbria University sports facility in Newcastle
Newcastle United women's football team pictured at a tactics training session at Northumbria University sports facility in Newcastle

You wouldn’t expect Newcastle’s central midfield partnership to spend their week days worrying about how to help develop the battery life and usage of an electric car.

But then being a footballer isn’t exactly lucrative...or not at least for players in the women’s game.

While the audience and support for the game is undoubtedly growing there is no parity in support or pay with the men’s game.

Playing in the FA Premier League North, Newcastle United Women’s Football Club is made up of volunteers who juggle their commitments working in bars, electrical firms and teaching jobs with the rigours of full time training.

Running through occupations it feels like turning back the clock to the pre-war men’s game with players and coaches turning out for the Magpies motivated by a love of the game and without any real financial incentive.

And at the heart of the club is Myriam Neaimeh, a former international in her native Lebanon who is now a researcher at Newcastle University.

The 32-year-old has turned out for the fledgling Lebanon side and even pulled on the captain’s armband playing in the Arab Cup and the West Asian Women’s Cup in 2007.

Playing either in central midfield or central defence Myriam is making the most of an opportunity she thought would never come.

“I always wanted to play since I was a young girl,” she said.

“I used to have some people calling me names because I was playing a man’s game but it didn’t matter to me. It wasn’t until I was 22 that we started having the women’s football clubs but at a certain part of my life I didn’t think I’d be able to play.”

After playing for a number of small teams and captaining her homeland she also played for Femina FC, in Hungary, where the game is at a better level than in the UK.

However, she believes the standard of the game is improving.

She added: “When I get asked this question I think of the women’s World Cup. When you look at the last one there is a massive difference to the one before.

“The game is more technical, the girls were faster – it was fantastic. Before that it was OK but not great, I would have preferred to watch the men’s game but in the past four years there’s been a massive change.

“There’s a bit more interest, a little more money. There is an exponential difference and I hope it keeps happening.”

A far cry from the 52,000-plus capacity of St James’, the NUWFC attract a handful of fans, mostly related to the players, and Myriam said the team would be overjoyed if they could build to a fanbase of around 5,000.

“We play at Northumbria University’s stadium, it could hold maybe 100 people but we never have this many,” she said. “The women’s game is not attracting an audience.”

Though NUWFC aren’t playing in the top flight, Myriam said the team has the potential to really push on especially due to the youth of some players.

She added: “In Hungary, at Femina, I was really lucky to be a part of that team. They would perhaps be in the league above NUWFC but I hope with more resources we can improve.

“The team is full of young players, I think in four maybe five years, we can compete in the Women’s Superleague.

“For me when I arrived in Newcastle the first thing I did was look for a place to live, the second thing was to look for a football team.”

The team is made up of bar staff, legal secretaries, trainee solicitors and factory workers – taking in a broad cross section of society.

While Myriam may have already picked up international caps, her team mates are equally ambitious about the future of the team.

Leonie Kennedy, 25, started playing aged 16 when she turned out for Boldon Ladies.

Nine years on she manages Heaton Hawks U12 Girls football teams and helps coach Sunderland University WFC, juggling her playing and coaching commitments with her full-time bar job.

“For me football comes first. I am lucky that I have a management team at my work who understand this and work my shifts around coaching, training and playing,” she said.

“However, this does mean I can’t work as many hours as I would like which has a knock on affect financially.

“A lot of players can’t make that sacrifice and you find its one of the main reasons female players stop playing as they get older. I love the sport too much to do that right now.”

Like Myriam, Leonie says there is a buzz around the team and has a firm belief now is an exciting time to get involved with women’s football.

She added: “Playing for NUWFC is the only incentive I need. Nothing beats the feeling of pulling on the colours of a club you supported as a kid.

“My teammates are like my family and there is such a buzz around the training ground now. The club is really moving forward and it’s an exciting time to be a NUWFC player.”

Amy Perch, a centre back, has played for the side for four years and during the week the trainee solicitor from Derby is busy tackling challenging International Family Law cases.

Amy, 25, who has been playing for NUWFC for four years, said: “Our biggest struggle is balancing our professional commitments, while trying to find sponsors and support for the team. We all sacrifice personal time to compensate for training and matches. For example, I had to give up tea time to fit football around my workweek.

“But it’s all worthwhile. Football is a great sport that gives me focus, helps me stay fit and brings me joy through the social aspect of team sports.”

Centre forward Stacy Crooks has played football since the age of six. The material controller at Blyth-based Baric Systems, said the physical challenges of her job make training difficult but despite battling motivation it’s worth it when matchday comes.

She said: “My job is quite physically demanding so it’s hard to get the motivation to train, you just know you have to make it to training so that you can play your best on Sundays. The biggest thing you sacrifice is your social life, we train until 10pm twice a week and spend all day on Sunday at football so trying to fit anything else in around work and football is pretty hard.

“The thing that keeps me going are the people at the club. The girls are like my sisters and the coaches and people behind the scenes are brilliant.”

“The biggest challenge is trying to balance everything together so that you don’t have to give anything up. This isn’t always the case and more often than not something has to give. But sponsors can be a massive help and take away one of the stresses. I know that if it wasn’t for my sponsor this season I would struggle to give the club what it needs to keep it going financially which would then have a knock on effect on my chances to train or play.”

Like her teammates, off the pitch Myriam leads a hectic life.

When she’s not charging forward from midfield she’s helping to further the motor industry’s green expertise.

The 32-year-old academic is working in partnership with Japanese car-giant Nissan looking at ways to reuse energy cells from electric cars, in another area which is expected to improve in coming years.

She said: “In my research I am taking batteries from electric cars and not just thinking about the cars but what will happen in five or 10 years, the batteries aren’t going to be good enough for driving but they will be good enough for other applications.

“My research, it’s looking at moving from the car just for transport but also to provide energy. You may be able to use it to provide energy to power your house.”

Newcastle United WFC play in the FA Premier League North Division, and play their home games at Coach Lane.

The team recently launched a lottery run under local authority registration to raise funds and complete the current season without cash shortages. The lottery is open to the public with a ticket price of £1 per week. To enter the draw contact the NUWFC treasurer at http://nuwfc.info/lady-mags-lottery

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