Brighton's Megan Connolly: People are seeing the worth of women’s football
Brighton's Megan Connolly admits to having to pinch herself daily after seeing first-hand the extraordinary growth and interest in this season's Barclays FA Women's Super League season.
Relocating matches to bigger stadiums was the running theme of the opening Barclays FA Women's Super League weekend – a theme Connolly wants to see continue.
England's success at the Women's World Cup has prompted a groundswell of interest in the women's game and moves from Manchester City, Chelsea and Bristol City to host their season openers on the men's grounds signals the dawn of a new era for those involved.
While the likes of the Lionesses are used to playing in front of big crowds, for the majority of Women's Super League players the experience is brand-new – not for Connolly, though.
She may be new to the division, having only joined Brighton in January, but the Seagulls were ahead of the curve with regard to the women's team using the men's stadium, having already hosted Arsenal at the Amex back in April where a record crowd of 5,265 turned up to see the Gunners clinch the Women's Super League title.
The Brighton midfielder knows exactly what it is like to play in front of big crowds and believes the moves are exactly what is needed to take the women's game to the next level.
"I think a lot of people, even younger kids and male players, have seen the worth of women's football now," said Connolly.
"They've shown what they're capable of and got the crowds involved.
"Playing at the Amex was incredible, it was my first big game against a top four team in a huge stadium.
"We had a massive backing there back in April and I'm hoping we will continue to see those crowds continue after England doing so well at the World Cup."
Before joining Brighton in January, Connolly spent four years playing football in North America – the home of the current World Cup champions – after obtaining a four-year scholarship to Florida State University to study sports management.
With four World Cup titles and participation numbers surpassing the 350,000-mark, North America has dominated women's football for two decades and while the country remains a superpower in the sport, Connolly believes the tide is turning in Europe's favour.
Last season saw the Women's Super League turn full-time professional for the first time, while this season sees the launch of the FA Player, a new live streaming platform which will provide unprecedented live access to over 150 domestic women's football fixtures throughout the season and will broadcast matches overseas for the first time in its history.
For Connolly, there's no time like the present to get involved.
"The Women's Super League has come so far. It really is the place to be now," said Connolly.
"It's the perfect time to be a part of the change and it's only going to get bigger and better.
"Women's football has really grown in the past few years and it's so exciting to be a part of that now.
"We've put a camera to it and people are noticing. Now you can be proud for wanting to be a professional female footballer."
Connolly may only be 21, but she's certainly not short of footballing experience.
Not only did she spend four years playing in the States, securing the NCAA women's soccer championship during her final game, but she also has made 19 appearances for Northern Ireland at senior level.
She moved onto the next chapter in January, signing her first-ever professional contract with Brighton in the Women's Super League, but testament to the young midfielder's character, she refuses to get ahead of herself just yet.
Instead, she relishes every opportunity she gets to play for Brighton in the top division, knowing there is no better way for her to develop than to be constantly surrounded by some of the world's top female footballing talents.
"I have so many role models in this division and it is a privilege that I have the opportunity to play against them now. One of them is Kim Little – she's a remarkable midfielder," added Connolly.
"Competing against her in midfield when we played Arsenal at the Amex in April was just something else, I think she is unbelievable.
"I want to be able to perform as well as she did on that day. Being able to measure yourself as a team against the very best in the division is the only way to get better.
"There are some fantastic young players coming through too, like Erin Cuthbert. She has already played at a World Cup at 21 which is amazing. As a young player, you have to learn off others and there is no better way to do that than being surrounded by those talents.
"I also look up to Louise Quinn and Katie McCabe of Arsenal. I have loved watching their footballing journeys. They have achieved so much, and I admire what they have done for the women's game.
"Now they've got the exposure and people can appreciate it more."