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Sion Swifts Ladies keeper hoping to make her ‘dreams come true’

JUST imagine.

Your country has never qualified for a World Cup before. The team is tied at 2-2 with the only other side that can take the remaining qualifying place. There’s one minute of extra-time remaining and your coach tells you to get warmed up and get your gloves on for the penalty shoot-out because you’re going on!

That was the situation that faced Sion Swifts Ladies goalkeeper, Nicole McClure on October 17 of last year.

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Jamaica were on the brink of history – they, nor any other team from the Caribbean had ever qualified for the FIFA Women’s World Cup. They were tied 2-2 with Panama in the CONCACAF Women’s Championship for the remaining qualification place at the 2019 event in France and with a penalty shoot-out looming she was thrust into the action by Hue Menzies.

It proved a master-stroke by the head coach but was more like an ‘out-of-body experience’ for the now 29-year-old McClure, who went on to save two penalties as the ‘Reggae Girlz’ made history with a 4-2 success and booked their place in the FIFA Women’s World Cup which gets underway on Friday.

“At the moment it happened it was like an out-of-body experience!,” Nicole explained from the squad’s pre-tournament training camp in Jamaica.

“I didn’t realise what was going on and it wasn’t until later on that my cousin put it into perspective – sometimes I wouldn’t believe it but then I realised that this is really happening!”

Since that unbelievable night in Texas, Jamaica have been drawn in either the group of dreams or the group of death – depends how you look at it.

They will tackle Brazil in Grenoble later today before taking on Italy on Friday, June 14 in Reims. They then conclude their Group C campaign back in Grenoble on June 18 when they face Australia.

While she admits her side face a ‘difficult’ task to qualify for the last-16, Nicole’s attitude is that Jamaica aren’t there just to make up the numbers or for novelty. They are there to ‘compete’.

“We have a very difficult task ahead, but we are up for the challenge,” she said with the steely determination of a seasoned professional who has played in no fewer than nine different countries.

She added: “Brazil are the idolised football country in Jamaica, so it’s kind of a dream come true to be playing against them. It would make my life, it would be amazing to play in that atmosphere, in that historic game. That would be incredible!

“Australia will prove another difficult task, but to be honest I want to play in all three because we have Italy as well, so we can’t take our foot off the gas.

“Realistically, we want to get out of our group. We want to go into the tournament and not be a participant, we want to be a competitor and shock the world once again to prove that we belong, that it’s not a fluke that we are here. The expectation is to win and perform!”

In order to remain sharp ahead of the World Cup in France, New York-born Nicole, who qualifies to represent Jamaica through her parents, made the decision to sign for local Danske Bank Women’s Premiership outfit, Sion Swifts Ladies in February.

She has played five times – keeping three clean sheets – for the club who are in Danske Bank Women’s Premiership title contention and who have reached the Premiership League Cup final. And she is grateful to have the opportunity to experience yet another country, another culture and another style of football.

“The best part of it is learning different cultures, different languages, eating different foods, learning about the histories of different countries -that’s probably my favourite part of this lifestyle,” explained Nicole, who began her footballing odyssey at Benjamin N Cardozo High School in Queens, New York, before moving to the University of Hawaii and then the University of South Florida, where she graduated with a degree in Communication in 2011.

After also enjoying a stint with Tampa Bay Hellenic, she moved to Iceland and UMF Selfoss before experiencing action in Switzerland, Sweden, where she actually scored a penalty kick while playing in the District Cup final with Östersunds DFF in 2014 after saving one, and Norway. After Europe, she stopped off at FC Ramat HaSharon in Israel.

From there, her next port of call was France and ETG-Ambily (now called Croix de Savoie), winning promotion to the top flight, then Croatia with ZNK Split, before returning to Sweden and Sundsvalls DFF, which was her final club before the ‘unexpected’ call came from Tony McGinley and Tommy Canning at Sion Swifts.

“The national team’s glove sponsors, L1 Goalkeeper, the owners of that company are friends with Tommy and Tony,” explained Nicole, who will become the first player from the Danske Bank Women’s Premiership to play in the World Cup.

“We were speaking one time and they were talking to me about my plans and how I wanted to prepare for the World Cup and they asked me if I had a club, so I said ‘no, I’m still looking’. They reached out to Tommy and Tony and maybe an hour later I got a call from them! It was very unexpected!

“Strabane is great, super friendly people, the landscape is beautiful, I love it there.

“I’m grateful to have had those games before the World Cup and to Tommy and Tony because those five games have been very very helpful in my preparations for the World Cup.”

While she is thoroughly enjoying life in Tyrone, and playing in the Premiership – which she describes as ‘helter-skelter’ due to its non-stop intensity – she admits that her main aim is a return to the professional game and although she would like to finish the season with Sion after the World Cup, that may not be possible.

“Tommy and Tony have been very, very helpful and they have said if a team sees me and wants to sign me right away, then I can’t pass that up, but as of right now my plan is to go back to Sion and finish out the season, but we’ll see what happens,” she concluded.

In the build-up to the World Cup, Jamaica have beaten Panama 3-1 in Florida before losing 3-2 to Scotland on Tuesday night in front of 18,555 fans at Hampden Park – the biggest attendance ever at a women’s game in Scotland – with Nicole playing the second half of both.

Jamaica’s FIFA Women’s World Cup Group C fixtures (times BST)

Today at Stade des Alpes in Grenoble (2.30pm) v Brazil

Friday, June 14 at Stade Auguste-Delaune in Reims (7pm) v Italy

Tuesday, June 18 at Stade des Alpes in Grenoble (8pm) v Australia

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