Sunday 25 August 2019

Women's game needs more than floating vote

Roche goal a great story but real progress dependent on regular support

There is a huge irony in Stephanie Roche being championed by outlets who never report the
fixtures or results from Ireland's top women's league. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
There is a huge irony in Stephanie Roche being championed by outlets who never report the fixtures or results from Ireland's top women's league. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The extraordinary momentum behind the campaign which has made Stephanie Roche a worldwide talking point is a good news story. In many ways, it is also a very Irish one.

Roche is a genuine contender for the Puskas Award after her magnificent strike for Peamount United which compares favourably with its rivals on the goal of the year shortlist.

The patriotic card is being played but her perfect technique and execution deserves votes on merit. It is a real contender that gets better with every viewing.

Placed next to a pair of World Cup efforts, her goal has generated global curiosity thanks, in part, to the inescapable novelty value.

And Roche is the ideal ambassador, a confident talker in the countless interviews that have accompanied her meteoric rise to fame. This is her moment.


Inevitably, her achievement has been hailed as a triumph for equality and a trigger for the growth of the women's game.

This is where optimistic observers are in danger of getting carried away; at least when it comes to Irish shores anyway.

Remember, 14 months have passed since Roche scored the goal which gained considerable local attention in the immediate aftermath. There has been no trace of a knock-on effect.

The telling of her story is enhanced by the fact that it was only preserved by chance.

If the manager of Wexford had decided against recording that match then Roche's brilliance would only have been witnessed by fewer than 100 people. Instead, millions of viewers from around the world have enjoyed the pleasure.

Naturally, this terrific anecdote is celebrated because of the happy ending. It still remains the case, however, that Women's National League [WNL] games are played out in front of minuscule crowds with no guarantee of cameras.

There is a huge irony in Roche being championed by outlets who never report the fixtures or results of matches in Ireland's top division, a seven-team league introduced in 2011 which is very much in its infancy. This lends itself to the conclusion that women's sport deserves greater coverage. Columnists habitually resort to this safe argument and it does carry weight, yet it is also simplistic to argue that it is the sole reason for the disinterest.

The recent FAI Cup final between UCD Waves and Raheny received glowing feedback which was caked in the same language we hear every year around the showpiece games in all codes of ladies sport. In short, these are talented athletes who deserve greater recognition.

But there is a complexity in the Irish psyche when it comes to following through on those words.

The big days drum up a crowd, symptomatic of the event junkie mindset that is ingrained in the Irish sporting culture and is more pronounced the further you drop down the food chain. It never translates to consistent backing.

Regrettably, at WNL level, some attendances are so paltry that it would seem friends and family aren't even bothering to attend.

Nine days ago, the FAI Cup finalists renewed rivalries at Jackson Park - the home of Wayside Celtic - which UCD use as their base.

Estimates of the crowd for the crucial league encounter range from 20-30 people; it was deflating for the players.

This parish cannot claim moral high ground. I've never been to a WNL game and there's no plausible excuse. Just empty words.


League of Ireland fans know the chicken-and-egg scenario that springs to mind here. Any clamour for coverage of the WNL - and other elite ladies sports - is sadly complicated by the absence of evidence that the Irish public are prepared to come out and watch them regularly.

The FAI, to their credit, have really tried to push Sue Ronan's senior international side and build up their marquee matches.

Rightly, they have highlighted an improved standard due to increased participation levels.

Ahead of Germany's visit last April, a concerted push from the PR department delivered plenty of exposure for the Saturday afternoon kick-off.

A Tallaght Stadium crowd of 1,623 was healthy compared to previous fixtures and it is a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, in a city of 1.5 million people, it hardly constitutes a bumper attendance.

Roche, who now plays in France, has graduated to household-name status and in theory that should make it easier to sell future qualifiers. In practice, history encourages scepticism.

Katie Taylor was acclaimed as a national hero in 2012, yet the hordes have not followed her subsequent exploits with the same fervour. If sporting excellence cannot change viewing habits, then what does it say about the market?

Olympic glamour attracted those who are inclined towards a fad, and seeing Roche's name in lights has garnered a comparable response in certain quarters.

This is the journey of a lifetime for the 25-year-old and nothing should detract from that. She has earned the publicity that will accompany the run-up to the Ballon d'Or ceremony on January 15.

But if her loudest cheerleaders, both male and female, drift away when the dust settles then the status quo will remain. Women's sport will be forgotten about until another cause celebre comes along.

Last summer, it was the rugby stars and their World Cup tilt. During the week, it emerged that they have not held a collective training session since August and their Six Nations games next year will take place in Ashbourne, not the Aviva. Where was the outcry?

The fickle show has moved on, as it always does in Ireland.

People feel good about themselves because they have figured out how to delete web browsing histories and register multiple votes for Roche but it is laughable to construe this online determination as striking a blow in favour of equality.

A meaningful commitment would be if every voter made sure to attend a women's game in 2015 or donated towards future development in tandem with the click of a mouse or swipe of a smartphone.

That is the message which needs to accompany this crusade, not the undertone that it would be a bit of craic if an Irish girl claimed a prize ahead of the millionaire superstars.

This campaign has to inspire punters to vote with their feet when the spotlight fades.

Otherwise it is just further proof that the Irish excel in the short-term fling that leaves no legacy.

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