Tuesday 20 August 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Time for the FAI to put up or shut up when it comes to women's football'

Megan Campbell insists any appointment of an internal candidate to replace Colin Bell as national team manager would be a regressive step for the women’s game. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Megan Campbell insists any appointment of an internal candidate to replace Colin Bell as national team manager would be a regressive step for the women’s game. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

I don't want to see Megan Campbell doing match analysis on RTE at the next major women's football championships.

Nothing personal but I don't want to see Louise Quinn or Áine O'Gorman either. I'd hate to see them doing it. That's because I want to see them playing in the next major women's football championships, the Europeans which take place in England in July 2021.

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It's not beyond the bounds of possibility. In the World Cup qualifying campaign Ireland finished third in their group and held eventual finalists Holland to a 0-0 draw away from home. They looked a team on the way up.

There are 15 qualifying spots available for the European finals. Nine of them will go to the group winners, with Germany likely to top Ireland's section. But there are also places available for the three best second-placed teams and the winners of play-offs between the other runners-up.

This is an eminently achievable goal for Ireland who are seeded third. Second seeded Ukraine are 24th in the world rankings to our 33rd but they have only ever qualified for one major finals, the 2009 Euros. This is one more than Ireland have made, yet the Ukrainians don't present an insurmountable obstacle.

The World Cup finals and the unprecedented public interest in them showed this is an extremely exciting time for the women's game. A major finals held in England is likely to be an even bigger deal. Ireland can be part of that but only if the FAI do the right thing by the team.

That's why Megan Campbell spoke up last week. The FAI are about to appoint a new manager after the departure of Colin Bell and the speculation is that underage boss Dave Connell is favourite for the job. Campbell has nothing against Connell personally, but sees such an appointment as a step backwards.

"I think if it goes internal again it's a regression for women's football and what we're after fighting for the last three years will just all be forgotten about," she said. "We need someone who has experience from club and country level, both playing and as a coach, to come in and push and ask for things that will maybe put people in uncomfortable positions."

Campbell suggested that the wrong appointment will lead to player unrest, "It's an easy cop-out to just keep the job internal. There will be a lot of unhappy people in camp and a lot of tough decisions may be made by players. I wouldn't be able to stay involved if there was a regression."

Megan Campbell is as whole-hearted a player as has ever worn the green jersey and has just battled back from a cruciate ligament injury that threatened to end her career. The 26-year-old is also a high achiever who starred in Manchester City's FA Cup final victory over Birmingham City two years ago. If she's speaking like this, the FAI, and the rest of us, need to listen.

The appointment of Bell in February 2017 seemed to indicate the FAI was finally taking the women's team seriously. Bell had won a Champions League and a German Cup with 1. FFC Frankfurt and improved a side which had been well off the pace in the previous European qualifying campaign.

His departure to become assistant manager at Huddersfield Town was a blow. He claimed to have become disenchanted by the FAI's failure to properly develop the domestic league and the underage structure, they say he wanted too much money to stay.

Which begs the question: what is too much money? We are, after all, talking about an organisation which was happy to pay its CEO €360,000 a year, to pay rent of €36,000 a year for him and to not bat an eyelid when he ran up a €40,000 credit card bill in six months. John Delaney has voluntarily stepped aside in the wake of revelations earlier this year but remains on his salary, and the FAI could also be on the hook for a €2m loyalty bonus which the former CEO negotiated in his contract four years ago.

So they're in no position to preach parsimony to either the women's team or the FAI employees who are currently worried about their jobs. Megan Campbell and her team-mates should not have to pay for mistakes of others.

Campbell has made it clear she has no axe to grind with Dave Connell. Neither do I. But the fact is that moving from a manager who's won major trophies to one who hasn't is a vote of no confidence in the team. It's unlikely Campbell would have spoken as she did without the agreement of her senior team-mates. Her fear that the FAI's main criterion for a new boss will be that he comes cheap is palpable.

There's one very important reason why the players want a manager with no prior connections to the FAI. It's just two years since they had to go on strike because, in the words of their lawyer, they were being treated as "fifth-class citizens," and "dirt on the boot of the FAI".

Anyone who remembers the stories of players having to get changed in airport toilets and not even being provided with tracksuits will understand why they'd prefer a boss who'll come in from outside and make the kind of demands from the FAI necessary for the team to move forward. It's worth remembering that when the players made such outlandish demands as a €300 match fee, the FAI initially tried to play hardball with them, describing their action as "an unprecedented ultimatum".

Megan Campbell doesn't want to go back there. Why should she? She's a top class player. So is team captain Katie McCabe, who's just won the League with Arsenal and came third in the assists category after World Cup stars Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema. Louise Quinn was also on that Arsenal team while Denise O'Sullivan has won American League and International Champions Cup titles with the North Carolina Courage.

Liverpool's Niamh Fahey has made the Women's Premier League team of the year, West Ham's Leanne Kiernan played in this year's FA Cup final, Harriett Scott starred for Birmingham City as they came third in last season's Premier League and has just signed a new two-year contract, Claire O'Riordan and Diane Caldwell are playing in the Bundesliga where next season they'll be joined by Amber Barrett who's just signed for FC Koln.

Irish players are making their mark everywhere. The question is whether the Irish team can do the same thing. The future should be bright - only four of the 21 players in the Irish squad for the last game were over 26 and eight were 22 or under. Yet the appalling vista of mass retirements has been raised. That won't do.

A kind of faux feminism is fashionable in sports journalism at the moment. But retweeting 'women rock at sport, yay,' or 'Serena Williams would so beat Roger Federer' or, 'Anyone who doesn't like Megan Rapinoe is yukky', is easy enough for middle-aged lads to do. It takes a second and costs nothing. The real leap is to treat women's teams with the same level of seriousness that we treat their male equivalents.

That's why the appointment of the next women's manager must be seen as a very important story. We wouldn't, for example, accept it without question if the FAI announced that Tom Mohan was going to be the next men's boss because he's done well at youth level.

We've been hearing about an FAI commitment to gender balance at board level. But real gender balance would involve leaving no stone unturned so the women's team could compete at the top level. Only the odd anorak will notice who's on a board, but the whole country will notice an Irish team at a major championship finals.

There'll be a big deal made about the Irish team's forthcoming match against the US. But it's a friendly that won't matter much in the grand scheme of things. It will be good in terms of exposure but it's time we stopped thinking of women's sport in terms of PR. What really matters are serious international matches, like the one Ireland face against Ukraine in Tallaght on October 8.

Apparently the deadline for applications for the manager's job has closed and interviews are already being carried out. Megan Campbell's statement may indicate the players are worried they'll be presented with a fait accompli and told to like it or lump it.

That would be shameful. The FAI have spent a lot of time lately telling us they've changed. How they treat the women's team, for so long 'the dirt on their boot', will tell us if that's true.

All this team want is a fair shot. Is that still too much to ask for?

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