Despite being a member of one of the most famous academies in women’s football, playing in the USA and becoming a huge part of Crystal Palace Ladies’ recent success, Freya Holdaway still can’t quite believe the path her international career has taken.
Having previously harboured dreams of playing for Wales after living in Llandrindod Wells for the majority of her life, or possibly England due to being born in Basildon, the 28-year-old could have been forgiven for feeling strange pulling on the famous green jersey of Northern Ireland for the first time last month.
Holdaway had been sounded out for a call-up to the country’s Goldcity Women's Cup squad, held in Turkey, due to her grandfather’s heritage, and jumped at the chance to belatedly take her first steps into first international football. Now with four caps to her name, she is eternally grateful for the opportunity and admitted that it took just a few notes of the national anthem for her Northern Irish roots to be awakened.
“It was a little strange to start off with, but I wanted to play for my grandad and so it was a very proud moment,” she said. “Singing the national anthem was something that I soaked up – when you get to 28 and not had a call-up you don’t think that you’re going to play internationally, but you still hold onto that dream, and when it comes it strikes a chord with you. It was quite overwhelming.”
Playing alongside Eagles teammate Ciara Sherwood, Holdaway’s international career began like a dream as Kazakhstan were defeated 2-0 in Northern Ireland’s tournament opener, and things continued in good fashion as they drew 1-1 with Romania two days later. However, defeats to Ukraine and Kosovo saw the Green and White Army finish sixth out of the 10 participants.
The experience was an unforgettable one for the centre-back who started all four games, and hopes to have done enough to remain in the squad for their World Cup qualifiers with European champions Holland and Norway next month. For now though, she is simply delighted to have made her family proud, especially the man whose genealogy made it all possible.
“I’ve never seen my grandad cry but he nearly did when I spoke to him!” Holdaway revealed. “My parents are also so proud that I never gave up. Hopefully I get the call-up for next month’s games as we play in Portadown, and then they can possibly watch me play.
“I’m satisfied with how I did seeing as it was my first camp. I was provided loads of opportunities to learn different things from the coaches, so things can only get better.”
It has been a meteoric rise for Holdaway, who after leaving school became a member of Arsenal Ladies’ academy before using her skills to land her a scholarship with Marshall University in the USA. However, after returning to Britain she was at a loose end until a close friend suggested she link up with Palace Ladies to keep involved in the game.
Three years later, she is a full international also featuring for a flourishing club, who currently sit pretty at the top of the Women’s Premier League and have reached the final of the Capital Cup, in what is Holdaway’s second season as skipper.
“I like to think that I’m a natural leader, but others might say bossy!” she laughed. “I’ve learned to man-manage the girls because everyone needs different things at different points, such as an arm around their shoulders or a boot up the backside, but my favourite thing is seeing how much people have progressed.
“We’re still going for promotion and we’ve got the cup final against Charlton Athletic so the double is on, but we’re just taking each game as they come. We’ve applied to join the Women’s Super League 2 too so that’s something longer-term to potentially look forward to. Things are very exciting at the moment.”