Former Déise star says notion ladies football is non-contact is outdated
When Derry Girls premiered on Channel 4 five years ago, like many others from the north west, I was instantly brought back to my school days in Letterkenny in the 1990s. Many of the characters in the show were replicas of friends and peers from my youth.
I distinctly remember a highly entertaining, cheeky and fearless Michelle, a Clare who had no need to worry about exams but agonised over them anyway, a few Big Mandys and Wee Tinas, all of whom I was petrified of and a significant number of Jenny Joyces who, if Sister Michael’s prediction is correct, have likely “gone far in life but aren’t well liked”.
Former Waterford legend Michelle Ryan, once a student and now a teacher, is proof that someone can go very far in life and be one of the most well-liked and respected people involved in ladies’ football. She won her first county title with Ballymacarbry in 1999 at the age of 13 and last year she won championship number 24 along with the club’s first Munster championship since 2000.
Before establishing herself as a key player in the Waterford senior team, her underage inter-county career was somewhat difficult as it ebbed and flowed in terms of getting game time, mainly because she found the transition from a club environment to county quite difficult during her early years. “I didn’t start [in] those underage teams at all; we won an under 14 All-Ireland and I didn’t even get a jersey,” she recalls.
Ryan was called up to the senior panel in 2001 a few months before her 15th birthday, joining a team that had won five All-Irelands in 10 years, having contested eight of the finals. After this golden period of success, the county lost a lot of players to retirement and struggled to remain competitive during a bleak spell between 2002 and 2009 that included relegation to the intermediate championship, a time Ryan describes as being “terribly difficult”.
The next five years were used to build at underage levels and focus on making a strong and competitive return to the senior ranks. In 2015, Waterford were finally reinstated to the top tier after beating Kildare in the intermediate decider.
Ryan enjoyed the following five years at senior level before retiring in 2019 after 19 years in the Déise blue. The longevity of her incredible career meant she had been playing long enough to witness a multitude of changes in ladies Gaelic football, such as the sin bin, the countdown clock and the welcome addition of the advantage rule.
These days, she is known for her no-nonsense approach to analysing the women’s game on TG4. While fair and balanced, she is unafraid to focus on areas of the game that are in need of improvement.
Last weekend she retweeted a video of Meath’s Niamh O’Sullivan being punished for a supposed ‘charge’ while in possession of the ball during a feisty Lidl Division 1 contest against Mayo. Ryan wrote: “This whole issue of the tackle and ‘barging’ needs to be addressed. Incidents (or sometimes non-incidents!) are occurring in every match at this stage. Standing in the way is not defending! We’re destroying the skills of good defending and limiting the skills of good attacking.”
The ‘charge’ rules have come under increasing scrutiny as a result of the higher profile of the ladies’ game. When the rule was initially introduced, it is likely that it was an attempt to try and further preserve the notion of ladies’ football being a non-contact sport. But we have been ignoring the glaringly obvious fact that the physicality present on the pitch and being passed over by the majority of referees is completely at variance with the rule book. Over the last 10 years there has been a colossal transition in the fitness levels and conditioning of players, in the pace of the game and the tactical awareness of players and coaches.
“Players who have been around a long time at senior level can see that this notion of the sport being non-contact is outdated,” says Ryan. “But it’s ok that it’s outdated, many people seem to be panicking that we have to say it’s a non-contact sport.”
Ryan believes the main difficulty associated with the ‘charge’ is the rule book itself. “To my mind, the only foul should be a deliberate charge; if you deliberately try to go through the opposition player, that is 100 per cent a free; you aren’t trying to avoid the contact, it is dangerous. I am not advocating for removing that at all. But if someone is standing there with their arms outstretched, there is nothing wrong with using your power and athleticism to go past them because the defender is as strong and conditioned as you at this stage.”
Given the advancements in coaching and tactics, it’s likely that there has been an emphasis on training pitches all over the country on how a defending player can draw a free against the player in possession by exploiting the rule. This shift away from coaching the actual skill of the tackle is diminishing the frequency at which it is being used during games to low levels. It is a frustrating trend that is increasingly reflected on pitches all over the country.
“The skill of defending and the timing of the dispossession with the hand and the intricate footwork isn’t happening anymore. Defenders aren’t trying to do that anymore; instead, they are trying to stand in the way, knowing they are going to get a free. You are taking away the skills of defending and not rewarding those [with] power and athleticism and agility to get past someone with pace.”
The last 10 minutes of that Meath-Mayo game were chaotic because of three separate incidents related to charging. The free-kicks awarded resulted in a second yellow and sending off for Meath’s Marie O’Shaughnessy for what appeared to be dissent; one of their officials spent a significant length of time on the pitch in conversation with the referee when Niamh O’Sullivan was receiving treatment following a free-kick awarded against her after she seemed to accidently clash with a Mayo player. The tension in the crowd was palpable, which, in turn, heightened emotions on the pitch, leading to a few really dangerous tackles and a frantic finish to the game. When the final whistle blew, there didn’t appear to have been any serious injuries, but the referee had to be escorted off the pitch by his team of umpires.
According to Ryan, it is very difficult to lay the blame solely on referees because of how the rules are written. “The way the rule book is, then referees are open to interpret it in different ways. We need to start with the fundamentals of the rules to avoid another situation like what we saw on Sunday. I think our game is best as a spectacle when the referees are a bit more lenient in allowing some physicality. There will be natural body contact when it’s not deliberate, and when the real nature of the competitive game and tensions are there, the game should be allowed to flow. That’s when football is at its best.”
What is becoming an increasingly difficult situation for officials is likely to continue to manifest unless those with the power to enact change do so. The LGFA has gone through periods of renaissance and reform and both are needed now in relation to the game’s playing rules to alleviate the concern being voiced by players and managers and perhaps quietly by referees all over the country.
What happened in Navan last Sunday was not good for the game, and a repeat is very likely unless a suitable course of action is taken by those with whom the duty of care lies. The current approach is comparable to one of those panic stricken scenes in Derry Girls, during which Jenny Joyce suggests the obvious to Sister Michael — that she lead the group in prayer to try and help the situation, to which the apathetic school leader replies: “No, sure what use will that do?”