Heather the homecoming hero!

Irish World Cup star returns to Ballinasloe

Republic of Ireland Women’s star, Heather Payne, received a hero’s welcome back to Ballinasloe Town on Wednesday evening last following her return from World Cup duty in Australia.

The 23-year-old Creagh native, who has been heavily linked to Women’s Super League team Everton this week, told People Sport she was thrilled with the reception.

“It was great…I still can’t really comprehend it all; I’m still getting used to it! But it was great to see the amount of kids there – boys and girls. It’s great to know that now young girls can actually play football because when I was younger I had to play with the boys’ teams. It’s great for them to be able to watch a team on TV and be able to look up to them. It’s huge for the women’s game in general,” she said.

Heather said that while the team had hoped to go further in the competition, the World Cup was an experience they would never forget.

“The opening game against Australia was unreal! Walking out at the beginning of the game was something I’ve never experienced before with a crowd that size. That was definitely special and something I’ll remember for a long time,” she said.

“I think we were just unlucky with a tough group. If you look at the results, Australia went all the way to the semi-finals and we only lost to them by a penalty. We weren’t far off and if we’d been in a slightly kinder group we might have qualified for the round of 16. It’s good to have that experience now and hope we can keep qualifying for World Cups and European Championships as well”.

The former Roscommon Ladies minor footballer said the level of support the team received Down Under was top class.

  “There was a ‘fan zone’ in Brisbane just around the corner from our hotel and so we went down to see the fans one afternoon before the Nigeria game. The crowds for each of our games in Perth, Brisbane and Sydney were unreal,” she said.

Heather also received plenty of support from family and friends: “My sister Lorna was living in Canada for a year with her boyfriend so they made the trip over. So did my mom (Gráinne), my dad (Brendan) and my brother (Conor) and I also had an aunt and uncle who made the trip too so I was well supported over there,” she said.

“They definitely enjoyed the experience. I was chatting to my mom and I feel like it’s different on the outside because when you’re involved you probably don’t feel like it’s such a big deal. I still can’t comprehend that it was a World Cup; it felt like just another camp to me!”

And while there were rumours of a falling out between head coach Vera Pauw and star player Katie McCabe, Heather said team spirit was high throughout their time together.

“We’re all close and there are no real cliques. You can sit at a table with anyone and have something to talk about so I think the team spirit in general was very good,” she said.

Asked about her next steps in the sport, Heather remained coy over rumours of an impending move to Everton in the Women’s Super League.

The Roscommon woman was a free agent following her graduation from Florida State in May and is expected to sign for The Toffees in what would be a major milestone in her already impressive career.