JOHN RIORDAN: From the depths of despair, a global message of hope

Áine McKeever was only 10 at the time but she remembers being in awe of Victoria Mallet.

Mallet wasn’t a superstar or anywhere near it — she had simply used her footballing talents to move from McKeever’s hometown of Derry to go and study on a soccer scholarship in the US.

McKeever was still a few years away from even sitting her first exam but she suddenly knew what she wanted.

She recalls further back the frustration of being the first girl to play on the boys team in the Derry & District League and will never forget the relief of eventually finding out there was an ad in the Derry Journal for Culmore Ladies FC. She remembers how her father Greg reacted to her joy.

“My dad got in contact with one of the coaches and I went down for a training session. I absolutely loved it. My confidence playing with girls just grew, it was a big thing for me.

“When I’d play with the boys, I’d blame my mistakes on the fact that I was a girl. I’d tell my dad, ‘I couldn’t make that pass because I’m a girl. I can’t shoot because I’m a girl’.

“That became his motivation — he always says my words got him into coaching in the women’s game.”

Now she’s in Connecticut, studying Communications at Quinnipiac University and playing at central midfield in her third year as a Bobcat.

“My father had a massive impact, pushing me to the next level, getting me to the showcase games,” she says.

Dublin native Dave Clarke spotted her playing at one of those trial games in Derry and recruited her to play at the college where he has coached the women’s soccer team since the late 1990s.

When I spoke to McKeever on Monday, an overarching theme of the conversation was opportunity. She spoke about home and players that had come and gone.

Many had fallen by the wayside, as they do in urban environments. What if more young players in Derry had the facilities to guide them along, as they discovered their raw talents? Would there be more James McCleans and Paddy McCourts?

Then there’s a whole other way that loss of opportunity manifests itself.

The people of Connecticut are still trying to wrap their heads around the hope that was lost on that fateful day in Newtown. It was the violent death of so many young children that inspired Clarke into an incredibly thoughtful initiative.

What started with phone calls to people connected with the game — one of them being Áine’s father back home — has developed almost beyond the control of the Quinnipiac coach.

It was small scale at first, a Derry City jersey for example. It didn’t matter as long as 26 was on the back in honour of the 20 children and six adults who died in Sandy Hook Elementary School in mid-December.

Suddenly an Argentinian jersey with Lionel Messi’s autograph arrived. Celtic and Man Utd jerseys too. Even John Terry’s number 26 might end up being redeemed by a more rewarding association.

The month-long auction for all these donated pieces of merchandise begins next week with the bidding set to start at $26 (€20).

“I don’t think when you see the shirt — with Sandy Hook 26 on the back — you don’t need to explain it,” Clarke said. “The tragedy at Sandy Hook hit a raw nerve with everybody around the world and soccer is truly a global game.

“When you look at the continents involved, the countries involved and some of the politics involved, that’s greater than the cause itself.”

McKeever was packing her bags to go home for Christmas when the news began to filter through that day.

“I couldn’t believe it. It just grew into this massacre. It was breathtaking. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“Then my folks at home were seeing it on national news as a headline. They’ve never visited me here so they’re wondering how far I am from the school. You feel like you’re so sheltered but you never know.”

The proceeds of the auction will be used to establish a scholarship fund in memory of those killed at Sandy Hook and will be dedicated to the honour of one of those people who died, behavioural therapist Rachel Marie D’Avino, a cousin of former Quinnipiac captain, Lauren Carmody-Grenier. Indeed McKeever’s former team mate and 2011 captain, Kyla Miles, attended Sandy Hook and knew many of the victims. “Dave has done some very hard work,” McKeever adds. “The jerseys are all in. It’s a great initiative.

“It shows how much soccer is a global game and really brings people together to help. It’s a great cause. I don’t think people ever forget it but sometimes it’s overlooked.”

The auction will begin next week and will be hosted on the website

* Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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