Thursday 25 December 2014

The Irish team still in with World Cup chance

But its goalkeeper, who has 100 international caps , can walk down the street unrecognised

Published 20/06/2014 | 02:30

Republic of Ireland's Niamh Fahey, manager Sue Ronan, Julie-Ann Russell and Louise Quinn. Photo Ramsey Cardy/Sportfile
On the ball: Julie Ann Russell in action against Croatia
Capped more than 100 times: Emma Byrne

On the morning of the day that Ireland's ladies international team played Russia in a key qualifying match for next year's World Cup, two of its star players, Ciara Grant and Dora Gorman, were sitting their exams in Third Year Medicine.

It is impossible to imagine any of those who typically comprise the men's squad having to sit an exam before a crucial game or, indeed, combine the business of being a university student with that of professional footballer.

While the men are highly paid household names, their female equivalents get by on a tiny fraction of those earnings and are barely known even among those who profess to be highly knowledgeable about Irish football.

Emma Byrne is a case in point. The 35-year-old has won nine league titles and the same number of FA Cup medals with Arsenal and has been capped more than 100 times by Ireland, yet the goalkeeper walks down the street unrecognised. Sue Ronan, manager of Ireland's women's football team puts it succinctly: "Could you imagine the sort of adulation she would receive if she was a man?"

Ronan is one of Irish women's football's great advocates and she helped mastermind a crucial win for Ireland on Saturday night against Croatia. The last-minute goal from Denise O'Sullivan offers the team a lifeline in their bid to reach the World Cup finals in Canada next year. Should they beat Russia in Moscow tonight, they will give themselves an excellent chance of being on that plane come summer 2014.

"The greater success we have, the greater interest there will be," she says. "Certain women's sports, such as tennis, have been part of the public imagination for years, but people still have difficulty getting their heads around the idea of women footballers."

A case in point is captured by the attendance at the Ireland-Croatia match on Saturday night. Just over 1,000 people turned up at Tallaght Stadium, despite the Football Association of Ireland offering ticket prices for as low as €2. That the match took place the same evening that saw England play Italy in their opening World Cup game didn't help, but seasoned observers of women's football were not surprised that more didn't lend their support.

"Women's football – and women's sport in general – doesn't get anything like the media coverage men's sport does," Ronan says. "Katie Taylor wins an Olympic gold for Ireland and yet there's no broadcast of her European title win the other week."

Ronan knows Taylor well. Not only is she a superb boxer, but she played football for Ireland at underage level.

Gerry McDermott, the FAI publicist who looks after the women's team, used to work as a sports journalist and says he thought he was on to a great story when he first happened upon a young Taylor. His editor, unfortunately, did not. "I was told I could write four paragraphs on her."

Despite this, Ronan says the women's game has come on in leaps and bounds from the days when she played in the 1980s. "I used to have to train with the referees," she says. "Women footballers were seen as very strange species back then. Today, there's a really professional set-up and the players get to prepare in an environment that's not all that dissimilar to the men. And the creation of a Women's League of Ireland (in 2011) has helped to bring the standard up a lot."

In the run up to the match with Russia, the team have been in camp at Dunboyne Castle, Co Meath. The stint is a mix of intense training session and downtime that's been filled with watching World Cup matches.

"It would be great if women's football had wider recognition," says Julie-Ann Russell, the League of Ireland's player of the year, "because there's a very high skill level and there's a passion that's just as strong as in the men's game. But yet, you hear people say things like 'what would a woman know about football?' or 'they don't understand the offside rule'. It's very offensive."

Russell, who has played with clubs in the US, England and now Ireland, is currently studying for a masters in marketing from the Smurfit Business School. "If I was a man and was playing for the national team, I'd be making the sort of money that would set me up for years, if not life. But because the pay is so small and the sponsorship opportunities virtually non-existent, I have to think about the future – hence the masters."

Her teammate Niamh Fahey – also from Galway – is on the books of Arsenal although she missed much of last season due to injury. "People might think that because I play for Arsenal that I know Arsene Wenger (manager of the men's team) or the players, but I don't" she says. "They're two very different worlds, even though Arsenal Ladies have been hugely successful over the past 10 years or so."

She believes the focus on men's football stems from a societal attitude around sport and gender. "It's common for boys to continue with sport after the Junior Cert, but less so for girls," she says.

Louise Quinn, meanwhile, plays professional football in Sweden – one of the most enlightened countries on earth when it comes to women's sport. "We get good attendances at our matches and there's at least one match shown on television every week. Some of the players on the Swedish national team would be well known among the wider population."

Quinn, from Blessington, Co Wicklow, plays with Eskilstuna United near Stockholm and says the positive attitude she has experienced reflect the egalitarian nature of Swedish society. "The paternity leave there is so much better than here, for instance," she says. "It's definitely not seen as weird for women to play football although things aren't perfect, like the time last year that the Swedish FA gave a car to a male player who had achieved a record number of caps but a female player with even more caps won nothing.

"There's no doubt that women's football is in a better place than it was five years ago, and I'm hopeful that as more girls and women play the game it will attract more interest. Will it ever become as big as men's football?" There's a long pause. "I don't know."

IRELAND PLAY RUSSIA IN A WORLD CUP QUALIFIER TONIGHT. NO IRISH BROADCASTER IS SHOWING THE GAME.

Irish Independent

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