Daniel McDonnell: 'Irish women's game must benefit from FAI reforms'
The discourse around the proposed reform of Irish football has been presented as a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity.
In the week the Women’s World Cup kicks off, that approach should be looking beyond the structures of the men’s game.
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Ireland did build some excitement in their attempts to reach France, but Colin Bell’s team were punching above their weight against established professional outfits and it eventually told.
Long-term observers of the women’s game say the campaign was positive, but retain concerns about the direction of the sport here – even if interest and participation levels are growing.
Stats about the numbers of girls playing the sport are often central to any missives around the health of the game. That’s understandable, but if Ireland are to qualify for a major tournament, which would be transformative, then it’s the elite structures that matter.
The unified position on strike action in 2017 put the squeeze on the FAI when it came to improving conditions for the national team, but it’s only a fraction of the battle.
With obvious parallels to the men’s game, our best players have to emigrate to succeed at the highest level.
That’s not unusual, with the new full-time Women’s Super League in England providing opportunities that would be more attractive to players than packing the bags for further afield.
Ireland’s Women’s National League (WNL), which was established in 2011, has been asset stripped as a consequence, but it was already struggling, having failed to register with the wider public. Complaints about media coverage are valid, yet the product needs to generate its own momentum to justify attention – and it has failed to do so.
The eight-team league has been criticised due to a lack of competitiveness. Former Peamount United manager Eileen Gleeson recently gave an interview where she referenced anecdotal tales of teams and referees not showing. Heavy defeats are routine – bottom of the table Kilkenny have conceded 37 goals in their nine defeats from nine games – and demoralised players with the lesser teams are dropping out.
It might be a national league, but those who know the scene would tackle any suggestion that it is elite.
At WNL level, all players are effectively amateurs. This means that promising kids have to get out of the country if they want to dedicate their lives to the game. League of Ireland players can still get paid to play here if they don’t get away.
The choice for young girls is limited in comparison. Bell still calls on WNL players, but has consistently said that the amount of training they do with their clubs is inadequate preparation.
Certainly the strong stand they took for their rights is likely to go down in history as a turning point.
Embattled FAI staff noted that outlets who seldom paid attention to the women’s game were suddenly energised by a story that embarrassed the top brass.
They will say their overall work compares favourably to other codes and there’s a certain truth in that. The FAI did make a statement by going abroad to hire a full-time manager in Bell in 2017, while in comparison the IRFU downgraded their main job to a part-time position.
Results have deteriorated since then and the women’s rugby team – Six Nations champions as recently as 2015 – kicked off this year with a 51-7 home loss to England. It was largely glossed over.
The IRFU, who have no real excuse for austerity measures, escaped the kicking that the FAI would undoubtedly have taken for such a step.
It just goes to show that when the men’s teams are doing well, there is limited appetite for debate on the bigger picture; Irish football’s history tells us that. But this is again a reminder of why crisis provides opportunity.
The male-dominated profile of the Shane Ross stakeholders forum last week was cited on social media. That is a problem, but it also leads to a line of thinking that getting any female into a position of power is ticking a box.
In the fallout from the 2017 strike threat, the FAI went out of their way to highlight their commitment to women’s football and Niamh O’Donoghue’s belated election to the board was hailed as ground-breaking.
O’Donoghue has been on the FAI Council since the 1990s, an unbroken run that puts her in the same bracket as all of the other long-serving delegates.
Everything we know about the current situation in Abbotstown points to the need for fresh voices and ideas, whether they are male and female.
The glass half-full take on the status quo is that Ireland is capable of producing high-level performers. Louise Quinn and Katie McCabe have just won the league with Arsenal, with other Irish players represented. Denise O’Sullivan has cracked America.
As the women’s professional game is still at an embryonic stage in all bar a handful of countries, there’s less ground to make up in comparison to the men’s game, where we are decades behind European rivals in all areas.
All the familiar challenges persist, of course. Progress has to be funded and supported, by sponsors and by fans. Preaching has to be accompanied by a proper commitment. It’s hard to change viewing habits and, realistically, it’s the next generation that has to be targeted.
Live RTE and TG4 coverage of this World Cup should open eyes. Ireland aren’t a million miles off that level, but they will be unless measures are taken to keep up with the pace of worldwide change.