It’s fair to say that Niamh Farrelly has settled nicely into life in Parma since making the move from Glasgow City last summer. That wasn’t always a guarantee either. Having only played in her native Ireland and then relatively close to home in Scotland, the move to Italy, and to a brand new club about to embark on their first professional season, came with its risks.
A background of having studied Italian at school, though, helped to overlook any initial concerns, not that there was much time to even think those through when the offer from Parma’s new women’s team presented itself. While there’s an enormous difference between studying a language at school and then throwing yourself into a country that doesn’t have a great level of English, Farrelly had known for a while that Italy was a place that she wanted to be.
“Good. I know the language, I’m getting better at the language,” Farrelly said, asked how she was finding life in Emilia-Romagna, sitting down to speak to Total Italian Football in Parma. “I studied it for my leaving cert and I was actually good, it was my favourite subject but that was five years ago so by the time I came… But now because I’m immersed in it every day and the manager doesn’t really speak English so I’ve had to communicate in Italian and it’s going well now, I like it.
“I wanted Italian [at school]. I went on holidays there and it was a unique one because not many schools do it. I vividly remember writing, we had to talk about our hobbies and I remember saying that one day I wanted to play football in Italy; it was always there at the back of my mind, but I never thought that it would actually happen. Even in Glasgow all the girls knew that I wanted to go to Italy and they’d always say ‘go, just go’.”
And so she went, without a second thought. Talks were ongoing and once Parma’s acquisition of Empoli’s Serie A Femminile rights were secured, things moved fast, and Farrelly ended up agreeing to the move and putting pen to paper on a contract from Dublin, hurrying back from a holiday to pack up and make a flight hours later in a move that could have been seen as a gamble.
An Ireland international still in the early stages of her professional career, a move abroad came with no guarantees and some might have been put off by the uncertainty. Moving to a league like Serie A Femminile that had just turned fully professional that same month, to join a club that didn’t have a single player on its books could have gone one of two ways.
“It was a risk but when Parma came I felt it was a good choice,” Farrelly explained. “Obviously it was a risk but I thought ‘if I’m gonna turn this down…’. It was something that when my agent told me about it and that they wanted to make the women’s team successful, to really put into it with resources, it sounded like a good project so I was happy to sign.
“It’s been worth it – 100%. When I arrived, at first the professionalism exceeded my expectations. The girls here have told me that it’s not like this at every club here, far from it, so it was 100% worth it and I’m glad I did it.
“I didn’t really have time to worry about what I was getting myself into. I knew that I had always wanted to do it and it was an improvement from the league I was playing in and a new experience. It was always in my head that I had wanted to go to Europe, I wanted to do that and discover the world a bit.
“As soon as I arrived, it exceeded my expectations with the professionalism at the club, the amount of full-time staff we have here is probably on a par with a lot of the top clubs around Europe. There were those things that I probably hadn’t experienced yet and the club goes above and beyond away from the pitch to be sure that you’re ready to play, and especially for a club in their first year with a women’s team, we’re treated as on par with the men which is good.”
Just as Parma’s men’s team have had their on-field difficulties in recent seasons, the women didn’t get off to the kind of start they would have hoped to and soon found themselves facing the reality of a relegation battle under Fabio Ulderici. It didn’t take long for the former Empoli coach to be sacked and replaced with Domenico Panico, who’d had experience of fighting at the bottom of the table with Pomigliano previously.
That came as yet more change in a career that, as Farrelly herself put it: “has had five club coaches in three years as a professional,” but it didn’t knock her off her stride. Just as she had been a regular under Ulderici, she kept her place under Panico despite the new boss taking a very different approach to his predecessor.
“I think I’ve adjusted well, they’re both quite different. I think I’m a player who likes to just get on with it,” Farrelly said. “If a coach wants me to do something then I’ll just do it. I don’t have a strong opinion on the pitch, I just put my head down and do what I’m needed to do. If I’m wanted in defence or up front I’ll do it and I think that helps when you have new managers, you just have to trust in what they want and if the team backs the manager in that way then you’ll always have a chance.”
That, then, makes her recent omissions from the Ireland National Women’s Team squad hard to wrap your head around. Having admittedly made the decision to go pro to help her international ambitions, and having made a significant step up in quality by leaving Scotland for Serie A, Farrelly hasn’t been called up since being part of the squad that secured Ireland’s first-ever qualification for the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
With some of Parma’s most impressive performances this season coming against strong opposition in Juventus, Inter and runaway leaders AS Roma by staying compact and using a high press, there’s more than enough evidence to suggest she could offer a lot in a similar approach at international level.
“The way we play here against big teams is the same as Ireland do against a team of high quality – you have to give them respect but know when you want to press and get in their faces and make things difficult for them,” Farrelly detailed. “I think that game against Juventus, for example, was quite similar to the way Ireland look to play with high pressure on opponents and I think it’s good to have that versatility. Obviously, against teams of our level we like to keep the ball and you can learn from that as well for if I play for the national team against lower-ranked opponents.”
Though she herself won’t admit it, it doesn’t seem much of a leap to wonder if the move to Serie A – away from Ireland and the United Kingdom – might just have her out of the sight of some, as Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham appear to have suffered from in their hopes of playing for the England Men’s National Team even while playing well in Italy for AC Milan and Roma respectively.
Farrelly, though, knows that her only way back into the Ireland squad for the Women’s World Cup this summer is by working on herself and then hope to receive the call from Vera Pauw.
“Yeah, definitely. I think I’ve had a good year after moving from Scotland to Italy, a new league with a higher standard, pushing my way into the team and getting good minutes every week,” she said. “The only thing I can do is keep my head down and if it comes, it comes. I know that I’ve put the work in so I just have to keep doing what I’ve been doing and hope that a door will open.
“It would mean everything [to go to the World Cup]. Everybody who knows me knows how proud I am to be Irish, the reason I went professional in the first place was to push my way into the squad and at that time I was a regular in it. But in order to get more minutes I felt the need to take the step up to the professional level, it was never a dream to play professionally, I never thought about it at school and always just thought I’d go to college and play in Ireland but the only thing I wanted to do was to play for Ireland and everybody that knows me would know that. I think it would be anybody’s dream to go to the World Cup… we’ll see.”
For now, Farrelly’s focus is fixed on Parma’s ongoing fight against relegation. Currently second from bottom in Serie A Femminile’s Survival Pool, there’s work to be done.