Women's game still has long way to go – Connell
AS Ireland's squad dispersed yesterday following their European Women's U-19 Championship semi-final defeat, there was sense of a beginning in women's football rather than an ending.
FAI chief executive John Delaney and Women's FAI chairperson Niamh O'Donoghue were present at Dublin Airport to greet Dave Connell and his heroes off the flight from Norway and they lauded what was unquestionably the high point for any of our international teams this year.
Six of the 18 players so impressive on Ireland's debut appearance in the finals will now step up into contention for the senior fold, while the remaining dozen will stick with Connell for the next U-19 qualifying campaign, which kicks off in September.
Whether or not they can replicate the feat of qualification, never mind finish in the top four, will be influenced greatly by the draw handed to them in the elite phase, should, as expected, the opening series be negotiated safely in two months' time.
Ireland have shown their ability to compete against nations with a decorated history in the women's game, chiefly by beating Spain, England and Sweden during the recent group phase in Oslo.
The lopsidedness tends to occur against the 'big three' of the Netherlands, Germany and France.
In an elite series where only the team finishing top is guaranteed a place at the eight-nation event, the draw is pivotal to the prospects of outsiders like the Irish.
Connell's charges secured their place at this year's event by grabbing the best runner-up spot across the seven groups, having been edged out at the summit on goal difference by the Dutch.
When the teams met again in the heat of Mjondalen on Thursday, Ireland melted amid a 4-0 drubbing inflicted by L'Oranje.
"Look at the difference in structure," said Connell yesterday. "I've been on UEFA study groups over there and they have access to their players morning and evening on a daily basis. We just cannot compete with that.
"The system in Holland is such that most players are with the likes of Ajax and PSV Eindhoven on a full-time basis. Between morning and evening training sessions, they attend school."
In contrast, the Irish players assemble whenever possible but primarily over school holiday periods. Introducing a National League in 2011, aided by FIFA grants, was considered a game-changer for the FAI, but coaching times are again restricted by the players' external commitments for education or work.
"We've a long way to go to improve our structures, but there's enough talent in this squad to qualify for another European finals," said Connell.