- Lifestyle & Sports
- 27 Jun 22
These are exciting times for Finglas native and Ireland international, Jessica Ziu, as she leaves WNL champions Shelbourne and heads off to play full-time professional football in London with West Ham in the Women’s Super League. “I’ve never lived on my own. The nearest I got was a week in Glasgow!” the Irish wing-back tells Paul O’Mahony…
Jessica Ziu, the highly talented 20 -year-old Shelbourne right wing-back, is about to take a giant leap into the unknown.
On 11 June, she will don the red shirt of Shelbourne for the last time, in the club’s WNL game against second placed Wexford Youths, before moving to London to play as a full-time professional footballer for West Ham United in the FA Women’s Super League.
It’s an exciting prospect for the Dubliner – and a daunting one. This will be her first experience of living away from her family house in Finglas.
“I’m the youngest of nine,” she explains, “so I think that makes it tougher. I’ve never lived on my own. The nearest I got was a week in Glasgow (laughs)! I was saying to my parents that it’s a pity I have to go abroad to get professional football. I’m a home bird really.”
Even travelling outside Dublin for WNL matches, she has seldom had the opportunity to spend time exploring.
“In the Ireland camp, Ellen Molloy (Wexford Youths midfielder) said that us Dubliners think it’s just Dublin – and outside that it’s grass everywhere!” she laughs. “I’ve watched Young Offenders, though, and Cork looks great! Waterford too! I’m proud to be from Finglas, as is Alex Kavanagh, who lives across the road from me.
“I knew of her before we were at Shels,” she adds. “I used to hear about the goals she’d score and then she got into the Ireland under 15s team when she was only 12. I only got to know her as a friend when we played together in the WNL. She’s sound, is Alex. We Finglas girls stick together!”
Is she looking forward to the big move to London?
“It’s exciting, but I’m nervous, too,” she confesses. “I passed my driving theory test the other day, but I might buy an e-scooter over there for starters! And I’ve no clue about the currency difference and all that! But there’s a few girls in the West Ham squad who are my age so I might be able to hang around with them. I’ll be living with a few girls from West Ham.”
There are a lot of temptations in London, not least entertainment, music, and nightlife. How does she chill out and relax?
“I wouldn’t be big into music,” she concedes, “but I do have Spotify and listen to stuff like Taylor Swift. I haven’t even been to a live concert, of any kind, yet! I tend to wake up, go to the gym, and walk the dogs to relax!”
Back in the day, when Irish players went over to the UK to sign with the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool or Celtic, there was no internet, no mobiles, no WhatsApp, FaceTime or Zoom. Young players got very lonely and homesick. It should be easier for her to stay in touch...
“Yeah, but I’d prefer a text or phone call over FaceTime, or any of that,” she says, “because seeing them would make me miss them more. The family will travel over to see me, though, and all my friends! And it’s only a 50-minute flight or something, and cheap as well.”
CONFIDENCE NOT ARROGANCE
How does she feel her departure will impact on Shelbourne?
“In terms of friendship, it’s difficult when a player leaves,” she admits, “but playing-wise the squad can usually adjust and bring in players to fill the gaps. At the moment, Abbie Larkin is an unbelievable young player. Gloria Douglas is there, too, and Jemma Quinn. Shels have a very strong bench. Also, we had some Shels under 17s training with us recently and one of them scored an unbelievable goal. We were all like, ‘Wow!’”
Jess did the FAI ETB (Education and Training Boards) course last year, under Sean Byrne (now Manager of the Bohemians WNL side). How did she get on?
“It definitely helped me with the physicality side of things, getting stuck into the boys,” she smiles. “And the boys didn’t hold back on getting stuck into the girls. Confidence-wise, it also helped me.”
At Shels, Ziu is not afraid to twist, turn and dribble, taking people on and running aggressively with the ball at the opposition. Did she always have that self-confidence?
“No, and it’s something I’m still actually working on,” she reveals. “I’ve been more of a right wing-back recently. People are surprised to hear that I’ve also been a centre-midfielder, as an 8 or a 10, box to box, and a winger before that. The girls are always encouraging me to take people on, so I do. But I’m still learning…”
Even while she is with Shels, Jess has been preparing for her professional career in the WSL.
“The professional trainer at West Ham sent me a programme a few months ago and I went straight into it. The WSL is a very demanding league and the level of fitness is unreal,” she says.
So, how did the West Ham deal come about?
“I signed to an agent, Bradley Rains at Coda Independent Sports, and he’s in contact with the clubs,” she explains. “West Ham came back to him and my parents thought they would be a good starting point, a good club. I also went to Brighton at the start of the year but West Ham felt like home. It was unbelievable. I knew that was the club for me. I was also fortunate to be in good playing form when I went over, so that helped. A scout here in Dublin, Christopher Conway, was also doing reports on me. It all clicked.”
Shelbourne will be competing in the UEFA Women’s Champions League this summer. Is she disappointed that she’ll miss that opportunity to shine?
“That’s been my dream with Shels, so I’m gutted to miss it,” she admits, “but hopefully I’ll get Champions League experience at some point in the future. It’s ironic that the year I’m leaving, Shels are most comfortable in the league.”
Confidence seems to be high that Shels can win the WNL for the second year in a row.
“Everyone is really pleased with where we are at the moment,” she says. “Athlone have done great. Wexford are there, too. We have confidence but definitely not arrogance. Noel King keeps us all in line. He never lets us get ahead of ourselves. It’s very competitive this year – we only scored late to beat Bohs, for instance. But, yes, we’ve got a really good blend of experience and younger players now.”
SINGING THE ANTHEM
Ziu also qualified to play for Albania, through her father but she never had any doubts about representing Ireland.
“We played them at under 17s’ level and we beat them 17-0, so that was interesting!” she recalls. “But I always just wanted to declare for Ireland.”
Ziu represented Ireland at underage level but was called into the senior women’s squad at 16 years of age in 2018 by then manager Colin Bell. She got her first start under current manager, Vera Pauw, last November in a record breaking 11-0 win against Georgia. It must have been an incredible experience.
“Singing the national anthem was amazing,” she reveals. “I was waiting three years for my first start, so it was unbelievable when I got it. All the girls were encouraging me and saying if you make a mistake, just get on with it. Having an experienced player like Niamh Fahey behind me was great. I remember in the first minute of the game I took a throw in – and I don’t normally take throw-ins – and I threw it straight to an opposition player! But I calmed down and got on with it. It all worked out great.”
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Vera Pauw seems to have built a good buzz within the squad.
“Definitely,” she says. “I think Vera can relate to us well as she played herself. She has brought in Tom Elmes as her assistant coach and he has an unbelievable eye for the game. Vera is very direct when we are analysing things and she’s quite different to the other managers I’ve had. On the touchline, you can really hear Tom. Vera shouts, too, but Tom’s voice can really be heard! They both have a great bond with the squad.”
Of course, playing with Ireland, she has another great role model in Arsenal and Ireland captain, Katie McCabe. The Guardian ran a feature on ‘The 100 best female footballers in the world 2021’, and Katie McCabe was number 60 – a tremendous accolade for the former Raheny United and Shels player.
“Katie is an unbelievable role model. Her and Pearl Slattery (Shels) are the two best captains I ever had. All the girls in the Ireland squad love Katie and look up to her. If we do something wrong in training, she’ll be over showing us what to do instead. She’s a bit of craic, too!”
No doubt, Jess will be keeping an eye on her former teammates at Shelbourne, hoping they finish out the WNL season as champions in October. But she is very clear about her priorities.
“I’ll be looking to have a good WSL pre-season, stay injury free, and to secure a regular spot for both West Ham and Ireland,” she says.
“I’m hopeful Ireland will qualify for the World Cup. I think we’ve got a really good squad. I think that was shown against Sweden.
“But I want to be starting! That’s my goal with both the club – and with Ireland.”
Read the full lowdown on the Women’s National League in the new issue of Hot Press:
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