The Western Isles has a proud footballing heritage, but it’s doubtful that the area has ever featured in a list which also includes Manchester United, Rangers, Celtic, Hibs and Dundee United. Until now.
All these club names have representation in the Scottish women’s under-16 squad which flew out to Portugal this week to take on three matches in an international development cup.
And proudly flying the flag for the Western Isles women’s team is Rachael Johnstone, a 14-year-old goalkeeper from Balallan with a steely focus on forging a successful career in the ever-improving world of women’s football.
Sport-daft Rachael took her first footballing steps while attending Stornoway Primary, where she says coach Gordon MacRae gave her huge encouragement to play.
She started as an outfield player but began playing as goalkeeper for Stornoway Aths juniors in her first year at high school. She continues to train and play at the island’s capital club, as well as with the Western Isles women’s squad.
Progress has been swift, and Rachael first featured for the Scotland under-15s last year. Her performances have also caught the eye of the Celtic women’s team and she was recently invited to join the club’s national performance squad for a year’s trial.
“I’ve been told I will get around 10 games in Celtic’s national performance team,” Rachael told the Free Press last week. “I can fly down and be in Glasgow on a Friday and fly back to be in school on Monday morning. It’s hard work, but I love sport and I’m determined to keep improving and go as far as I can in the game.
“Being selected for the Scotland under-16s makes me really proud – it’s insane really. It’s not really kicked in yet, and probably won’t until I am out on the field.”
Rachael was in the starting line-up for the Scotland under-16s opening match against the Netherlands on Thursday. Paul Brownlie’s side drew 1-1, before going on to narrowly lose 4-3 on penalties. Their next match sees them take on hosts Portugal on Saturday before they conclude the three-match tour with a match against Germany on Monday.
Mum Rhona was also making the journey to cheer Rachael on. She said: “I’m very proud. You always encourage them, but you don’t ever expect your children to be asked to represent their country. It’s a huge honour and I just want to support her as much as I can.”
Rachael, who is a fourth-year pupil at Sir E Scott School in Tarbert in Harris, said she owed a big debt to local coaches Euan and Jenna MacLeod for their advice and encouragement as well as to her school for allowing her time off to pursue her footballing dream.
Another of Rachael’s ambitions is to represent the Western Isles at the World Island Games – an event which has been pivotal in fostering women’s football in the Hebrides.
“Ever since I was about seven it’s been my goal to make the Western Isles team and to go to the Island Games – that would be a huge thing for me,” added Rachael, who identified Scotland under-18 goalkeeper Lee Alexander as a key influence and role model, and star Scotland and Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert as possibly her favourite player.
As far as the future goes, Rachael says her priority is simply to keep learning the game, but she has already developed a keen sense of what it takes to be a top keeper.
“Mindset is really important for a goalkeeper,” she added. “You need to keep the head up and keep going. If you let a goal in, you have to learn how to deal with it. Commitment is also really important.
“My dream would be to get a pro contract, and be full-time in football. I just want to keep going to a higher level, and get more caps – that’s my ultimate goal.”
To follow the progress of the Scotland women’s under-16s team during the this week’s three-match tournament, visit Scotland under-16s.
Article by Keith MacKenzie