In our second Forest Pitch player interview Alison O’Neill tells WAFA about her research into the business of football, and why looking after the World and European champions is a nice break from studying.
Forest Pitch, two football matches to be played on a specially created pitch in Selkirk, is one of Scotland’s biggest contributions to the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. An interview with Craig Coulthard, the artist behind the project, can be found here.
An interview with Forest Pitch player Mohamad Najib Nehab, who had to leave Afghanistan where he was under attack for his work to improve women’s rights, can be found here.
As someone who grew up in the soccer culture of Seattle, Alison O’Neil is happy to talk at length about the finer points of the game:
“Playing in the middle you have to be good at collecting the ball and putting it into space, or into peoples’ feet. I can collect the ball and I get a good view of the field.
“I don’t score a whole lot: I prefer to create because I usually see the game so well.”
Although Alison says she doesn’t base her style of play on any particular player, as a diminutive and creative midfielder she is often compared with world football’s nippy creator par excellence: Andres Iniesta.
The USA are one of the powers of women’s football, with only Germany having won as many World Cups (2). Born to a footballing family Alison has played since before she can remember, and has played to a high level, including winning a Pennsylvania state championship at high school.
But although Britain are still scrabbling to catch up with their rivals in women’s international football Alison has been impressed with the standard she’s seen since she moved to Scotland in 2011:
“I went to train with Queen’s Park because some of the players on Glasgow Uni play there. In just one training session I learned so much. They’re a true team. I haven’t been on that kind of team in a long time.
“I would say if I had to pick one day, or one experience here that’s been great, it was training with Queen’s Park: it was on another level.”
If the notion that someone’s style of football reflects their personality off the pitch is true, it isn’t surprising that Alison, who values team effort and a strong work ethic, is equally industrious away from sport. Alongside writing a dissertation for her MBA at Glasgow University, she’s working for Locog to help facilitate the Olympic football in Glasgow:
“I’m organising the transport within Glasgow for all of the athletes and media. There are seven different Locog venues around the city, and I’m in charge from when they arrive until when they leave, which is about two and a half weeks worth of movement.
“I started in the beginning of June and it’s been big learning curve in a very short period of time. I’m excited, it’s a fun job. I get paid, and I get to watch football, so I’m happy.”
Alison had originally contacted Locog to ask if she could volunteer at London 2012: “I just wanted to do something like sell t-shirts. But they were like: ‘oh no, you shouldn’t be doing this you’ve got a lot of experience, so we’re going to offer you this position.” Now she is responsible for the travel arrangements of, amongst others, Euro 2012 winners Juan Mata, Jordi Alba and Javi Martinez, and the USA women’s team.
The 30-year-old’s obsession with her favourite sport has run over into her professional life, and after quitting a job in the health care industry to study in Scotland she’s now writing a dissertation based on football: “It’s on the Seattle Sounders. It’s based on the concept of fan integration with the club, and Seattle have an alliance, which is like a focus group. It is made of fans and club management and they go over issues and fans can bring up concerns.”
Alison hopes to prove that democratic business models for running sports clubs help integrate the local community with the team. The point might seem self-evident, but many British football clubs, say Manchester United, might want to give the final dissertation a quick read.
The research has also proven that some complaints, no matter how much they are ignored by those in power, are universal amongst football fans: “The biggest part of it [the alliance] is game day experience. Fans want a say in what’s going on. They don’t want artificial noises, for example: they want it to be a very natural atmosphere.”
Rather than being a problem, the challenge of balancing her Locog work with her dissertation is one Alison embraces: “The more I’ve got going on the more I get done, that’s just how I work.
“I feel like I’ve gotten more done with my dissertation now I’ve started working here. I’m worried about when the job’s over, and I’ve got a month just to finish it.”
It was her thinking about the wider implications of football that drew Alison to Forest Pitch: “It’s definitely a different way of thinking about football that I’d never really thought of, and I guess that’s why I was interested right away.
“The combination of art and nature and football is something I never thought of. I was living in Seattle, and we’d go camping and take a football, so you’d kind of be in a forest and play, and it’s like that but on a grander scale.”
Always ready to accept a challenge, Alison has enjoyed sparing with the other Forest Pitch players at training: “Cheryl [Watt] is good. We’ve always played against each other [at Forest Pitch training], and we kind of go at it.
“We’re at a pretty similar level she’s just significantly taller than me, so it’s kind of a challenge. She has really long legs: I don’t expect it then all of a sudden her leg is there.”
Now the teams have been decided Alison will play for Delphi and Cheryl for Corinth, so the two will square up again for the match itself. The game might be a friendly, but don’t think the players aren’t taking it seriously: “I think it’s my competitive nature and I just want to go on and do well.
“We’ll go with what we’ve got and try to have fun with it: it’s supposed to be about fun. I’m trying to get into that. It’s going to be a unique experience, and I’m looking forward to it.”
by David Lyons