From Tallahassee to Tallaght – Heather Payne spares no effort when it comes to Ireland

Roscommon native, based at college in Florida, is thriving under the reign of Vera Pauw

It's as well Heather Payne loves playing for Ireland because her commute from her base in the United States to the home of the Irish women's football team is a marathon one.

How do you get from Tallahassee to Tallaght?

"Well, the most common route I take is Tallahassee to Atlanta, then to Amsterdam and then to Dublin. A nice three flights, around 18 hours," she laughs, jet lag, she concedes, an issue for her first couple of days back home.

She'll be on that red eye out of Florida on Sunday evening again as she heads home for Ireland's critical World Cup qualifying games against Slovakia on Thursday and Georgia on Tuesday week.


There's a spring in her step, though, after last month's win over Finland in Helsinki, Payne, winning her 21st cap, simply outstanding on the night, sending in the cross that led to Denise O'Sullivan's winning goal and producing a performance so tireless Niamh Fahey dubbed her "half horse, half human".

Are you? “God no,” she laughs, “but I wish I was so that I could keep running.”

The 21-year-old from Ballinasloe (the Roscommon side of it, lest Galway try to lay claim to her) made her senior debut for Ireland back in 2017, having played from under-15 all the way up, winning the under-16 international player of the year award along the way. It's been under Vera Pauw, though, that she has established herself, starting the last nine games.

“In fairness, Vera has given me great opportunities, she has a lot of faith in me and she’s trusted me since the beginning. I’m really thankful for that, it just gives me the confidence to go out and play the way I play,” she says.

“Everyone was super happy after the Finland game, getting that win away is huge for our campaign, it’s really given us a good boost, and it’s a boost we needed as well. It was perfect timing. I was happy with my performance, I just feel like I’m coming more and more in to the games, being more influential, and that’s what I want to be.”

Like so many of her international team-mates, Payne comes from a multi-sport background, playing both Gaelic football and camogie for Roscommon, and trying her hand at volleyball, basketball, swimming, athletics and rugby too. She never tried horse riding, though, despite being the niece of former champion jockey Tommy Carmody.

“He’s my Mum’s brother and she [Gráinne] used to do a lot of horse riding when she was younger. My brother and sister tried it too when they young but I never did, I just never really got in to it. But yeah, my uncle was a great jockey. And I’ve a cousin who has followed in his footsteps, Richard McLernon, which is great.”

Gap year

She was the only girl on the Ballinasloe Town team, moving on to Galway's Salthill Devon before joining Peamount United in the National League. Then the English Super League's Bristol City came calling, Payne joining them in the summer of 2018 after she had finished her Leaving.

"I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do at that point, so I took a gap year. I wanted to expand my horizons a bit, challenge myself in soccer, so I decided to give Bristol a try. But I also knew I needed to get my degree, and that's when Florida State came about."

She was recommended to Mark Krikorian, coach of Florida State University's Seminoles team, by the two Megans, Campbell and Connolly, Payne's Irish team-mates having both attended the college where they enjoyed hugely successful football spells.

And with that, she was offered a soccer scholarship and she is now in her third year of a degree in dietetics at a college whose alumni includes writer Hunter S Thompson, actress Faye Dunaway, The Doors' Jim Morrison, actor Burt Reynolds and golfer Brooks Koepka. Diverse. None of them, though, managed to get named on the ACC Team of the Year after an opening season playing at centre back, a position Payne never filled before.

“It was a weird transition, but it was an interesting experience. A few of our players were injured, so we needed someone to go in at centre back. I said I’d try it, I was brand new here, I was just happy to be put in.”

“I don’t mind moving around, I like playing on the wing or as a full-back but I’m also really liking the role up front with Ireland. I hadn’t really played there before, but I think I’m learning more and more about it. I wouldn’t necessarily like to play centre back again, though,” she laughs.

So you won't be challenging Louise Quinn for her spot?

“Not any time soon.”

Was it tough settling in at FSU?

“America is a completely different culture, but I’ve transitioned fine, I really enjoy it over here, I get on great with all my team-mates, I can’t complain at all,” she says, Tallahassee, Florida’s capital, now her base.

“Of course I miss home, but I’m not someone who gets really homesick. I was closer to home when I was in Bristol, but still away, so that helped me a lot. It’s good for me, a good experience.

"And I found the football really good, I think I've improved lots over the two years. They put a lot of the focus on your technical skills, the coaching is very high level. We have an attacking coach who's Japanese so it's nice to have his perspective as well, Japan are a very technical team. I have my classes every day, but we also train every day, so it's pretty much the same as a professional team."

Bucket list

She hasn’t decided yet what she’ll do when her time at FSU is up.

"I'll see what my options are once I finish," but returning to Europe to play professionally is on her bucket list.

On the international front, the dream, need it be said, is to qualify for the 2023 World Cup, six points from those games against Slovakia and Georgia key if that ambition is to be kept alive.

"We'll go in to those games as if we're playing Finland or Sweden, you can't slack off for any of them. Slovakia only lost 1-0 to Sweden and 2-1 away to Finland, so they'll definitely be challenging, as Georgia will be too."

"I think the turning point for us was beating Australia in September, even though it was just a friendly it felt like we were finally getting the reward we deserve after all our hard work. And the big thing now is having the crowds back, I feel like the country is really behind us."

And with that, she's off to pack for her Tallahassee to Tallaght trip, hoping she'll have a few more long hauls in the summer of 2023, destination Australia and New Zealand.