'Inside our bubble, we're all very happy. There's no negativity' - Kilkenny's United front in face of adversity
One win in four years highlights the struggles of top flight of women's game
It's Sunday lunchtime and the players of Castlewarren Celtic and Paulstown are throwing their energy into the dying stages of their Kilkenny & District Soccer League Division 2 meeting at the Watershed, a sports complex on the Bohernatounish Road.
As the tackles fly in, a team of girls are walking around the running track that surrounds the pitch. The Women's National League meeting of Kilkenny United and Limerick will be the second game on the surface that day. It's a public facility.
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When the first match ends, the United volunteers get to work. They put out their own corner flags and seats for the subs and make other adjustments to prepare the venue for action.
Match programmes are unpacked from a box and laid out on the table where the admission fee of €5 for adults is paid.
Chairman Shane Murray, the driving force behind United, has a microphone and calls out the teams and goalscorers.
He sits down before the match to explain his dedication to a club that was accepted into the top flight of Irish women's football in 2015, four years after the league was founded. Murray is a Dubliner who lives in Wexford.
"There was no point in putting another one in Wexford with Wexford Youths up and running," he explains. "For me, there was nothing in Kilkenny and I felt it was an area for development."
It has turned out to be a labour of love. Kilkenny United have won just one match at this level, a 2017 victory against Galway.
The visit of second from bottom Limerick last Sunday week was circled in the diary as an opportunity to change that statistic. Back to back draws against DLR Waves and Cork City in August had given Kilkenny their only two points on the board from 19 matches, where they had scored 12 goals and conceded 94. "Hopefully today we can pick up that win," says Murray.
A record crowd in Tallaght to mark Vera Pauw's appointment as senior boss has increased optimism about what the future may hold for women's football in Ireland.
But an accurate picture of where the game stands here must centre around the reality of the Women's National League, an eight team competition where there is a stark contrast in standards.
Peamount were crowned champions on Saturday after coming out on top of a title race with Shelbourne. Both teams visited Kilkenny in September and racked up double figures against their young hosts.
The Limerick clash had morale boosting potential.
Around two dozen spectators are present as the teams come out, mainly families and friends of those involved although it also includes a head coach from an American university that is looking at a prospective recruit, an illustration of the opportunities that exist out there for players that can operate at a decent level.
But it's fair to say that the ability in Ireland is mixed and Kilkenny are a reflection of that. With an average age of 19, they are short on experience, and it shows.
The early signs are positive. With new manager James Dermody barking instructions from the sidelines, captain Bronagh Kane puts them ahead. Dermody, a former manager of the U17 Longford Town boys team, is encouraging the group to try and pass the ball out from the back and their advantage is deserved.
But needless errors give Limerick an easy route back into the match and they are ahead by the interval. In the end, they run out 7-1 winners. It's hard to put a brave face on it.
"I have to say, the girls have been brilliant," says Dermody. "They show up at training every week. They keep going, they keep trying.
"You need mature players. You look at Limerick, they've one or two mature players in central areas (41-year-old ex-Irish international Sylvia Gee was amongst their scorers) that bring the others on."
United's captain Kane is from Offaly and only started playing the sport when she was 18 and started studying in IT Carlow, a reflection of how some of the lesser teams are desperately trying to play catch up.
"I played football for a while with Offaly," she says, "I never saw myself playing in the League of Ireland but I took the opportunity but here I am playing away."
She admits that jibes about their results can be frustrating. "You do get comments here and there," she says, "It's tough being at the bottom but we just have to keep driving and keep training."
Murray is proud of the group's character, and concedes that it's a big effort to keep the show on the road.
The estimated cost of competing in the league is around €40,000 per year and players are asked to try and bring in sponsorships to pay their way.
Travel is the main expense. Referee fees come in at around €190, and United only learned of the identity of the Limerick match officials on the morning of the game. An ambulance costs €200. Put simply, it's a task to make ends meet with no crowds of any description attending fixtures.
That is tied in with a central problem facing women's sport in Ireland and that's getting people to attend it regularly and not just for the showcase events.
Establishing a connection within the community is another challenge for United.
Only one player - Tara Long - actually hails from the county.
The group train in Dublin, a reflection of where the majority live and study.
There are encouraging signs that the sport is growing at youth level but United are not benefiting from that; they are the only Women's National League side without an underage structure.
An attempt to secure a licence for the expanding U17 league was refused. It was granted to Carlow-Kilkenny, an alliance of the Kilkenny and District League and the Carlow Juveniles League who already field teams in the boys underage national leagues.
For Murray, that was a kick in the teeth.
"It's an issue that the Kilkenny League aren't bonding with us or helping us," he asserts, "We're not getting any support They're after getting the U17 licence now.
"In my mind, there was room for two teams. We are now setting up six week training programmes in schools in Kilkenny. We weren't in a position to do that, because we didn't want to be stepping on toes with the league. We're going to do it now, with or without their help"
Murray feels that United's failure to field a team in a game with Peamount last year damaged their stock within the FAI.
There's a chicken and egg scenario with that as he argues that if they had an U17 team they would have had the bodies to avoid the embarrassment.
"That broke my heart," says Murray, "It was bad, it was very bad. Since then, we haven't missed a game. Everything has been good. We've 17 or 18 at training every night, which is great for a bunch of girls that is getting defeated every week."
The gulf between top and the bottom of the league does ask probing questions about what anybody is gaining from it.
Of course, the same could be said of the men's Premier Division, but the difference is that all players are getting paid for their efforts.
The obvious fear is that individuals will start to drift away from the women's game if there is no incentive to stick with it. Dermody is new to the league, and can see the problems.
"I've come from the underage set-up on the boys side of things at League of Ireland level and I think the women's league is off the pace in regards to that," he says.
"There's three or four top teams within this league and the rest of us are chasing.
"There's only an U17 league when it should be U15 and U19 too. And the league needs to grow with more teams; that takes a bit of bravery. Maybe that should be enforced as part of (men's) licensing..
"Girls can't come into the game if they don't have teams to play for. I go back to the Longford Schoolboy League, where I've come from. There's no 11-a-side football for girls. It's all small sided games.
"This is the top league in the country for women's football and you don't see an awful lot of exposure nationally. Our website is not the best. Information is hard to find.
"We have some great teams. I watched Peamount and Shels recently, two very good competitive teams, and it's as good as anything. The players are working hard and they want a fanbase and people in to support them.
"Globally, the women's game is flying. It's one of the fastest growing in the world. Why can't it be any different here? I think it's a mindset.
"It does take funding and people like our chairman to get involved and drive it and have a passion for it. Without that, this will fall apart. There's no point in saying any different."
Murray remains optimistic about what the future holds. United's season finished during the week with another 7-1 loss to Wexford.
Yet he takes encouragement from Wexford's story as they had to suffer some heavy losses in their infancy before taking flight.
"Outside of the club, people will have their own opinion about us," Murray asserts, "But inside our bubble, we're all very happy. There's no negativity here.
"We're looking to set up our own venue, and when we do that, we'll be in a different place. Kilkenny United was established as a women's club and that's what it's going to be the whole way through.
"The way I look at it, we're seven places away from the Champions League.
"We know where we are, and we know what we need to do."