Author Topic: Soccer: Irish duo an inspiration for Madison Lady Blues  (Read 2930 times)

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Soccer: Irish duo an inspiration for Madison Lady Blues
« on: July 16, 2008, 07:27:11 AM »
Marie Gallagher and Sylvia Gee stepped off the airplane from Ireland with names and a phone number on a piece of paper. No description of the people with whom they'd be spending the next three months living. No way of telling what those three months would bring.

They learned about an opportunity to play soccer in the United States for the summer -- not for money, mind you; simply for the love of the sport and for the experience -- and got on the plane less than a week later, headed for Chicago.

There, Teresa and Bill Reller were waiting to pick them up and bring them to Wisconsin. They, too, weren't quite sure what to expect when they opened their Town of Middleton home to two complete strangers.

Teresa hoped there would be some benefit to her soccer-playing boys to see the way two high-level athletes conduct their daily lives, but she didn't assume that was going to happen.

It has all come true here this summer. The love of soccer, the sharing of experiences, the broadening of horizons, the tutoring in the small stuff -- it's all happening thanks to an experiment gone right.

Middleton Yahara Soccer Club president Paul Lackner wanted some international flavor when the club's top women's team, the Lady Blues, made its debut this season in the Women's Premier Soccer League. Teresa Reller, a MYSC board member, was willing to help out when the last-minute scenario unfolded to bring the Irish duo to town.

Gallagher and Gee crossed the Atlantic on three-month visas, paying their own way to play soccer for no paycheck. The only thing provided to them was the housing space that the Rellers contributed.

By all accounts, it has been a grand success that will be duplicated in coming summers.

"It's a win-win because not only of the influence that Sylvia and Marie have coming in, they're obviously here to learn and gain experience as well from our coaches and our players," said Lackner, also the Lady Blues' general manager.

He said one of the extra benefits is the trickle-down effect in the club. Because the Lady Blues are closely associated with MYSC's youth programs, there's plenty to be learned by all.

"It makes for a marvelous experience for younger players, both male and female, to be influenced by international players," Lackner said. "We have a lot of international coaches in the club, and I think that's taken for granted a little bit. But when they actually see somebody out there playing, I think that really is a spark for them."

Gee and Gallagher said they were dying to come to America this summer to play what they called "serious" soccer. With the exception of some leagues in Dublin, Gallagher said, women's soccer isn't as big in Ireland as it is here.

And they were motivated enough to reach deep into their own pockets to make it happen. Their visa status does not allow them to work while they're in the United States.

"I came with the view that it was a break," Gee said. "And if I had to shell out a few quid, well, so be it. I've been working for a good while, so fair enough."

Bringing a perspective from another part of the world opens a lot of eyes when they step on the pitch here. Sometimes even their own.

"I think international players can bring a lot of experience," Gallagher said. "They've been to different places. Things we've done at home, we can try them here. And vice versa -- things we see here, we're going to try at home also. But I definitely think this club could step forward now if it got a few more players in. Hopefully the girls are enjoying playing with us. We're enjoying playing with them."

A new sense of home

The Rellers are enjoying having them around, too.

Teresa wanted her sons, Mitchell and Sam, to get a sense of what women's sports are about. She grew up an athlete and still runs marathons, but she doesn't think her kids got a real understanding from watching her run.

But with Gee and Gallagher around the house and passing along subtle hints about what it's like to be dedicated to nutrition and training, a corner was turned.

"It's something I don't know that I can actually teach my boys by telling them about," Teresa Reller said. "But watching my boys watching them, they're phenomenal players but they also work at it. They do two-a-day trainings. They train when the team doesn't train. They're very cautious about what they eat and what they put in their bodies, and warming up. They brought all of that to my boys in a way that they just couldn't get otherwise."

It's not all business, however. Gallagher and Gee introduced the boys to Fantasy Football -- football in the non-American sense, that is -- during last month's European Championships.

The new Friday night tradition at the Reller house calls for the Irish women to cook food from their homeland; Gallagher seemed surprised to be able to find Irish staples in grocery stores here.

"It's just been so, so, so good," Gallagher said. "I can't speak highly enough of the Rellers. It's just like home. I was just saying that to Teresa -- I've actually started calling the place home."

She said she hopes the Rellers make it to Ireland in the future so she can pay them back for everything they've done. The family arranged for a relative to loan the Irish duo a car for the summer to help them get around town.

"You're embarrassed because they're doing so much for you," Gallagher said. "You're not used to people going out of their way to do stuff for you, and they really, really, really are."

In future years, Teresa Reller said she'd like to see the team's international guests get involved in coaching with MYSC youth programs. But for a first-time experiment, she thinks it has worked out quite well.

Now she just wants Gee and Gallagher to bring some friends back with them next time.

"I'm assuming that the same experience would occur regardless of what players you brought over," Reller said. "I think the love of the game is what pushes all of this. But these two particular women, they're easy to have in my world. They're wonderful."

Differing backgrounds in Ireland

The story behind the Lady Blues having Gee and Gallagher on the roster this summer traces back to Lackner's friendship with an Irish coach, Rory O'Hare.

O'Hare is an assistant coach at University College Dublin, a successful Irish side for which both Gee and Gallagher played last season.

Gee was the team's captain in 2005, when it made its third straight appearance in the UEFA Women's Cup, Europe's top league competition. In all, she played for UCD for six seasons following stints with Leeds United in England, the Springfield Sirens of American league W-2 and the Irish national team.

She didn't start playing soccer until she got to college, which is a quite different upbringing than Gallagher's.

Gallagher joined a boys team at age 7, then moved to a senior women's club only four years later. At 11, she was already playing with and against women in their 20s and 30s.

She moved up the ranks of the Irish national team from youth clubs to the senior side before coming to America to play in college. After a year at Cumberland University in Tennessee, Gallagher settled at Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky, where she helped the Blue Raiders win the 2004 and 2006 NAIA national titles.

"At that time, I was like, 'I don't want to finish here,' " Gallagher said. "I'm working at home; it's grand to work, but you want to play serious soccer. It's serious over here, and that's the whole reason we're here."

Don't think Gee and Gallagher don't take the game seriously back home, though. Gallagher, 25, lives in Donegal, about four hours away from Gee, 30, who lives in County Offaly. But they'll meet up to train for two or three days at a time to give each other a challenge.

Part of the importance of being here for Gee is the exchange of cultures, both on and off the pitch, that has taken place.

"In Dublin, we would have had sometimes American students coming over, maybe they were doing a semester in Ireland for the summer or they were just coming over for the summer to work," she said. "And there's no question it improves everything. For us to play with them, with their level of enthusiasm or just the way they work in training and the effort they put in and the way they listen -- if you ask an Irish player to go move that goalpost over there, they'd be like, 'Yeah, whatever.' If you ask American players to go do it, they'll go do it.
"I suppose that's the difference in just cultures. And I think maybe we can bring some of our work ethic in terms of the amount of time that we spend with the football."

Blending with a local focus

The majority of the Lady Blues roster is made up of local players, some still in their teens. Lackner said local talent is the priority with the team, which has an unlimited roster and can have up to 30 active players at a time.

The team also plays in the state Women's Premier League to give more players a spot on the field.

But the value of international players, the way Lackner sees it, is to bring another dimension to the team and the club. His original vision for the Lady Blues this season included a few more players from outside the U.S., but that plan got held up by, among other things, those players being involved with their national teams this summer.

Gee played for Ireland in a 1999 friendly against the United States, which had just claimed the World Cup. Her job in that match was to mark Julie Foudy, one of America's all-time greatest players.

Even if only some of that kind of experience rubs off on Gee's Lady Blues teammates, it's a positive influence, Lackner said.

"We couldn't have asked for two nicer people, and they're incredibly talented," Lackner said. "I knew from their reputation and from my friend Rory's description of them that they would be good, but I had no idea that they would be as good as they were. That was a big plus.

"But then to have two of the nicest people that you could ever imagine as well, that has been totally win-win. I don't have any regrets whatsoever other than the fact that I wish I could expose them to more people."

Adding the Rellers into the equation adds another win.

"The Rellers are the real magic in all this because taking them in and doing all that they have for them has obviously made that experience that much better for Sylvia and Marie," Lackner said. "But having two boys in the program and how much those young ladies have influenced them, yeah, it is totally win-win-win."