Friday 18 January 2019

Odds stacked against Ireland women's team despite trojan efforts of players

Wexford’s FAI Cup final match-winner Katrina Parrock has two part-time jobs to help pay her way in football. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Wexford’s FAI Cup final match-winner Katrina Parrock has two part-time jobs to help pay her way in football. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

John Fallon

For all the talk of strides made in women's football during the 2018, the bare facts and statistics tell a different story.

Colin Bell's senior team are ranked 33rd in the world, six places down on where the side were positioned a decade ago, as the wait for major tournament qualification endures.

Ireland manager Colin Bell, whose charges are now ranked 33rd in the world. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ireland manager Colin Bell, whose charges are now ranked 33rd in the world. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

In total, his team won three of their eight games in the calendar year. More worryingly, however, was not scoring in any of their five defeats.

Granted, three of those defeats were against Norway and Holland, the top two nations in their World Cup qualifying group, who both progressed to next summer's finals.

Still, coupled with the scoreless draw in Nijmegen the previous November, it meant Ireland failed to find the net in all four fixtures against the nations above them. Bell's belles finished third, just as their seeding suggested.

Qualification hopes had been prematurely ignited in late 2017 by an opening blitz of away wins against Northern Ireland and Slovakia.

Amber Barrett's late winner against the Slovaks in April got Tallaght Stadium rocking, but the Dutch prevailed 2-0 a few days later before Norway won both legs of June's double-header. Ireland were already out of the reckoning to qualify by the September rematch against their neighbours from the north came around.

Leanne Kiernan, the Cavan teenager, had taken up full-time training with West Ham United just before scoring a brace in that 4-0 stroll.

Claire O'Riordan was another home-based player on the move, the Limerick lady joining Bundesliga outfit, MSV Duisburg.

The problems impairing Ireland's ability to start challenging properly to break their qualification duck, however, rest with the working environment available to the players operating at home.

Quite simply, the national league is not of sufficient standard, both on and off the pitch, to equip players for the rigours of top-level international football.

Training only twice per week with their clubs inevitably widens the chasm between other nations possessing a far more professional domestic set-up.

Bell, a Champions League winner with Frankfurt in 2015, has attempted to rectify the issue by hosting midweek training sessions, but when players have jobs, school and college studies consuming their time, limited scope exists for assembling players into a centralised location.

The syndrome is illustrated by the case of Katrina Parrock, Wexford's match-winner in the FAI Cup final.

She, along with her treble-winning team-mates, must raise €500 each to offset the running costs of the club.

That's on top of the money shemust find to fund the expenses incurred by playing - she has two extra jobs to fund that.

Wexford manager Tom Elmes admits his players could do without the stress.

Almost eight years on from the league being established, funded by FIFA grants, it is struggling to stand still.

It seems bizarre at a time when Donegal is supplying some of the best talent to the senior team in Amber Barrett, Tyler Toland and Amy Boyle-Carr, that their nearest senior club is 230km away. None of the eight teams in the league are located more northerly than a Galway/Dublin cross-country axis.

Results on the European stage provide another example of the stagnation. Early progress made by Ireland's representatives in reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League (Peamount in 2012) and Raheny in 2014) hasn't been built upon.

Wexford required a stoppage time winner against Linfield in August to avoid finishing bottom of their group.

The FAI need only look to Scotland for evidence of how investment pays dividends.

On the back of reaching last year's European finals, their seniors have clinched a place at the World Cup. Domestically, Celtic have committed to operating a full-time set-up.

In contrast, expectation and reality don't necessarily mix when it comes to the Irish women's sector. This month marks the completion of the three-year cycle in which the FAI set out a gallery of objectives in a strategy document.

Launched by chief executive John Delaney to much fanfare before a 2015 international, amongst the metrics for success were the senior team reaching the Euro 2017 play-offs and featuring inside Europe's top 20.

The basis of their confidence may have justifiably come from the U-19s advancing to the quarter-finals of the Euros in 2014 - a feat replicated by the U-17s a year later. Nevertheless, none of the stated targets have been met.

Likewise, underage tournaments have lacked Ireland's involvement since, yet the damning misfire is closer to home.

The desire for an annual Champions League group stage presence has been missed, but so, too, has this grandiose declaration.

"We must now provide a programme for these national league players to develop as elite athletes to allow them to train like full-time athletes," it read.

Presumably, that doesn't entail an FAI Cup final hero juggling jobs and knocking on doors of family and friends seeking financial support to merely kick a ball.

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