Inter-county funding a runaway train but ladies being left behind
"It's absolutely crazy," says Ephie Fitzgerald, the Cork ladies football manager. "You have girls travelling hundreds of miles a week without any recompense whatsoever. For the likes of me and the older guys, we're at a stage in life where it doesn't matter, but for youngsters who don't have a whole lot of money, it's a big sacrifice."
It's now 35 years since Fitzgerald won a Munster title with the Cork footballers, and since then he's seen the sport evolve beyond recognition, in many ways for the better. But having managed inter-county sides in both men's (Limerick) and ladies football (Cork) in recent years, he's well placed to highlight a vast imbalance between the two.
Of course it's no secret that the ladies game generates - and receives - just a fraction of the revenue that flows through the men's game, but when Fitzgerald sees young players struggling to get by because they pursued their passion, it doesn't sit right.
"Nobody should be out of pocket for giving the entertainment these girls give, and unfortunately that's what's happening," he says. "Our county board, to be fair, are very good to us. Anything we ask for, we get, though we don't have any outlandish demands. The girls are different from the fellas, they're more accepting of things and not as rebellious, but I don't think you see any men's footballer, regardless of where he's from, not getting his expenses. That's the least that anyone deserves."
A 2014 survey by the Women's Gaelic Players Association revealed that out of 600 players, just seven per cent got travel expenses for training, with 63pc saying they were short on savings due to the commitment of playing inter-county football.
And while the situation has progressed since, there remains a great chasm between the millions being invested in inter-county men's teams and their female counterparts. In a report on these pages last week, Colm Keys revealed that more than €25m was spent on inter-county teams across both codes in 2017, with the average county spend coming in at €789.430.
Filters But those in the ladies game, like Mayo football manager Peter Leahy, know just a fraction of that filters their way.
"Our budget is about one twentieth, one thirtieth of what the men's team is," he says. "Are our standards dropped in any way because of that? Absolutely not. What we need to survive for the year wouldn't keep a men's team for a month, but the reality is we have to make it happen."
Easier said than done, particularly when the one thing Leahy refuses to compromise on is performance. "I've been involved in the men's game at inter-county level for long enough that I know professionalism is nearly there, but the problem we have now is how to do that for the ladies with a very limited budget," he says. "I've knocked on a lot of doors, I've done a lot of begging and we've been very lucky. If you've been to an All-Ireland final people don't say no."
Leahy was drafted into the Mayo set-up after their Connacht final loss to Galway last summer, and he went on to take over as manager after Frank Browne stepped down last October in the wake of their All-Ireland defeat to Dublin.
He previously managed Westmeath ladies footballers, and also spent several years managing in the men's game, but was stunned at the progress in the ladies game when he returned last summer.
"I got the shock of my life at where it's come to," he says. "Only the men's semi-finals and finals had a bigger audience than us, and I think we can get even bigger than that. It's become a sport people are watching, people are realising it's a thing to sponsor and I think it'll be on the same level soon."
Leahy recruits support from local businesses in Mayo to help keep the ladies team ticking, from sponsors who supply meat to vegetables to protein milk - whatever frees up money to plough into their most essential needs.
"You can compromise on a lot of things, but not what you're doing on the pitch. For me the most important thing is to have proper facilities, proper training gear, everything else is subsidiary. There's an awful lot of people making a lot of money from GAA, when the fact is it's about those players being able to train to the highest level."
Last year €428,000 in government funding was issued to support inter-county camogie and ladies football panels, while in recent weeks Lidl announced they will be investing up to €1.5m in ladies football again in 2018, but for many of the sport's brightest stars, any sense of parity with the men's game feels a long way off.
As Mayo's Sarah Rowe puts it: "If we got more funding off the government like the men's do, the game would only improve and girls would respond. There needs to be that constant push. If you don't ask, you'll never receive."
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