There wasn't too much over-reaching by FAI standards at the launch of the new National Women's League at the Aviva Stadium in October 2011. The formation of a new six-team league was trumpeted as a "new era for women's football in Ireland", which it was. The then Republic of Ireland women's manager, Sue Ronan, spoke about players being able to "experience playing in a top-level competition at home, rather than having to go abroad", which sounded aspirational and promising.
The league director, Fran Gavin, seconded what Ronan said, and added: "I can assure everyone that it will be given the same focus and priority as the men's league," which sounded like tumbleweed rolling across a deserted highway.
In its ten-season history the Women's National League (WNL) has had three main sponsors compared to the decade-long single title sponsor of the men's equivalent. Bus Éireann and Continental Tyres have sponsored the WNL before So Hotels - owned by Supermac's owner Pat McDonagh - took over as title sponsor last year.
At the season launch in March 2019, McDonagh said he hoped the new deal would be a "long-term partnership". Have a quick flick through any FAI strategic plan and you'll see that promotion, sponsorship and marketing of the WNL are heralded among its top priorities; no memorandum of misunderstanding here. FAI interim deputy CEO Niall Quinn said in February this year: "We can foresee a time where women's football could really start to trip the light fandango in where it can go."
This promise of a very bright future doesn't match with the absence of a basic necessity for Irish women's soccer. The new, rescheduled and truncated National Women's League starts today without a headline sponsor. The FAI announced two weeks ago that Barretstown will become the first charity partner of the WNL, which, obviously, is a very worthy cause.
It's my understanding that So Hotels expressed an interest in continuing their sponsorship of the league to the FAI months before the original start date in March before Covid hit. There was speculation the FAI were looking for an international company to take over as title sponsor.
Whatever happened, the women's league has been left without a title sponsor and the women's game is down the kind of financial input a title sponsor would bring. The Irish Independent contacted the FAI about this but no response was given.
No title sponsor for our national women's league is a regressive step in this the tenth season. The players are amateur but elite - they don't get paid, they don't get even expenses, a lot of them have to effectively pay to play with players expected to source their own sponsorship of up to €500 in some cases to cover costs for the season.
The 'joke' among players is that the team that finishes second in the league and misses out on Champions League qualification will at least be saved the debt and costs of competing in Europe without the necessary level of financial support.
Clubs do what they can to get as much sponsorship as possible to keep them going through a season (which can cost up to €40,000 a year). This is an exceptional year - add the FAI financial situation to the current economic impact of Covid and it all adds up to a tightrope being stretched even tighter. A Covid fund, affiliation fees being waived by the FAI and league and cup prize money to be spread equally between all nine WNL clubs has given them breathing space.
It looked touch and go for Limerick club Treaty United FC, one of three new clubs in the WNL, along with Bohemians and Athlone Town AFC.
"If you had asked me in March would we go back, I would have actually said, 'Definitely not'," admits Lorraine Counihan, Treaty United FC board member. "But we were delighted that EI Electronics confirmed their sponsorship (of the team)."
Wexford Youths Women FC are one of the originals from the inaugural 2011 season. The club decided not to actively contact local businesses for sponsorship because of their own problems during the pandemic. They will leave a generosity bucket at the entrance to their home games in Ferrycarrig Park - they're not charging supporters the usual €5 entry fee while the attendance limit remains at 200 for two reasons.
"The FAI have given us money to cover the Covid costs, so we'd feel we would be double-dipping. And we're trying to give people a release (to go to the games without a charge) because the lockdown was very difficult," says Wexford Youths chairman Alan Browne.
"I must give credit to the FAI. They have committed to giving clubs initially €10,000, say, in the next few weeks. That would be a grant for Covid. The grant will make every club viable this year, no doubt."
Going into its tenth season, the Women's National League is still finding its identity. It's still relatively young in its development and so doesn't have the kind of cult following that the men's League of Ireland has with its #greatestleagueintheworld level of faith. The standout moment in its history remains that incredible Puskas-nominated goal by Stephanie Roche six years ago.
The league hasn't reached Sue Ronan's aspiration of keeping players at home. Only four of the 23-woman Republic of Ireland squad for the UEFA Women's Euro 2021 qualifier against Greece in March were with Irish clubs - three of those played with last year's league champions Peamount United.
"I feel like the (Women's) National League has a confused identity. It's a National League by demographic but in terms of a platform for the elite players, I'm not sure it's an elite league," former Peamount United manager and current Republic of Ireland assistant manager Eileen Gleeson said in an interview last year.
"There's a big discrepancy between the top and the bottom, games are finishing 10-0. I don't know how that benefits the team winning or losing."
The obvious answer is to have a semi-pro/professional league for women that would be attractive for our top players to play here and accelerate the standard of play.
When the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) began in 2013 in North America, US Soccer subsidised the salaries of up to 24 of their national team players, with the Canadian and Mexican associations also funding the salaries of some of their players to play in the NWSL.
"I think, from my point of view, you have to aspire to create a professional league. You can't be happy with an amateur league, you have to aspire to be semi-pro, players receiving expenses, stuff like that," says Republic of Ireland international and Peamount United player Áine O'Gorman. "I hope that the investment will continue to grow in the league and that it will push forward and improve the standard throughout."
What about female managers and coaches? The nine clubs in the women's league are all managed by men. There are two female assistant managers - Mazz Sweeney at Galway WFC and Laura Heffernan at Shelbourne - with female coaches in four other clubs - Edel Menton (Athlone Town AFC), Aoibh Hall (DLR Waves), Emma Donohue (Peamount United) and Amy O'Reilly (Treaty United FC).
Along with the Under-17 National League and the imminent Under-19 League, as well as the Republic of Ireland senior team, the needle is definitely moving nine years into this "new era" for women's football in Ireland.
But our national women's league is still a long way off what it was touted it could become nine years ago. Even in an exceptional year like this, no title sponsor for our women's league is highly unfortunate at best, because the basic wiring of our league needs to be in order before women's football here can really start to trip the light fandango in where it can go.