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Irish Women's Soccer Needs To Live Up To Its Own Promises

Irish Women's Soccer Needs To Live Up To Its Own Promises
By Conall Cahill Updated

By the admission of Sue Ronan, manager of the Irish women's football team, it has been a "disappointing" European Championships qualifying campaign, ending with a defeat to Portugal at Tallaght Stadium. But she still believes it is an "exciting" time for the sport in this country.

Under a new Strategic Plan, the FAI have put in place measures to try and address the disappointing cycle of results in recent years that has seen no Irish ladies' side qualify for a major international soccer tournament since the Women's FAI was formed in 1973. The plan brings women's football under the umbrella of the FAI and sets in place a Women's Football Committee (WFC) with Niamh O'Donoghue, former chair of the WFAI, at its head above eight regional chairs. This continues on from the establishment of a new Women's National League in 2011.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NckXRdaujDg

 

In 2010, the Irish under 17 team reached the final of the European Championships. Four years later the under 19 side would get to the last four at the same level, defeating England, Sweden and Spain along the way. But the senior side's lack of positive results includes a failure to achieve the goal set out in the Strategic Plan of qualifying for the play-offs for the European Championships in 2017.

The fact that underage success has not translated into the older ranks will change, Ronan hopes, with the development of the new structures in women's football in Ireland.

Underage level is like for like, you are playing against your own age group. None of the underage players in any country are professional, really. They might have better structures in place at the elite level, they might have played with boys at a younger age which has strengthened them up - but really we have shown, by having that success (at underage), that we have equally as good players here.

We definitely have technically good players here, absolutely. There’s a number of them have come into me this week and the talent is definitely there. It’s about trying to provide the right structures now to get them to the next level.

The question lingers as to why that level has not been reached up to now. Speaking after their defeat this week, defender Niamh Fahey, speaking to 'The Irish Times', admitted that "there are still a lot of players who are putting their careers on hold and are out of pocket just to represent their country" and that "more needs to be done for the home-based players to try to get up to the level and to balance their work".

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPJIzbRy0fw

 

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O'Donoghue tells Balls.ie that now that those in charge of the women's game are associated with the FAI they "will expect to have higher influence in terms of how some of the funding might get directed"- in other words, to have more money to grant Fahey's wish that things get "done better".

Greater investment from FIFA and UEFA, for whom women's football is now "a priority", she says, may boost the game's profile worldwide, but there is clearly still a lot of work needed to be done in Ireland before the women's team can be viewed on a level playing field with the men's and achieve the FAI's goal of "regular" qualification for European Championships. For example there remain only seven teams in the National League after the withdrawal in recent years of Castlebar Celtic and Shamrock Rovers - with the League even being opened up for clubs to submit applications to enter.

But there is an obvious reality facing those concerned with developing the new National League. Like in the men's code, players are - unless something drastic happens in the future - always going to head to farther shores if they intend making a living from the game (or, at least, as close as one can get to that in women's football). This is something O'Donoghue readily acknowledges.

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Do I think that it’s likely in the very near future that we’re going to have a fully professional league where people can earn their entire livelihood? That’s pretty unrealistic.

But I do think it’s an opportunity for (players)...to move to a semi-pro basis, and certainly for players to develop. Even our younger elite players, to develop properly. Or, indeed, those who want to turn back (from abroad). I think that the League has a really, really important role.

But we’re going to find it difficult, always, to compete with the attractions of the women's league in England or some of the Scandinavian countries.

And Ronan concurs that the domestic league will probably never match up to that of other countries. Most likely, its purpose at best will be to give national team players "a good basis of preparation" so that "they’re coming in ready to compete with the other international squads who are predominantly professional in some form".

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLta43SivBw

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With the establishment of the National League, clubs like Cork City, UCD, Shelbourne and Wexford Youths have now got women's branches competing - something O'Donoghue says is important, mirroring the game in countries such as Portugal and England, where it has been shown to be "critical" for women's football "in terms of future financial sustainability" and where clubs promote themselves on a "whole of club" basis. And she expresses admiration for the progression of the Ladies' Gaelic Football Association over the past number of years, saying that they "have really shown the opportunity that is there, and the way to do it. I think we can learn from each other.”

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Excellent marketing and profitable sponsorship from the LGFA certainly helped their cause - but equally, so did the excitement of the on-field action. There is clearly a lot of potential within women's soccer in Ireland - but in order to grow in popularity, the national side will need to back up any successful marketing promotion of the game with exciting performances on the pitch. Whether they can or not, remains to be seen.

SEE ALSO: 'He Has Got A Bit Of History In Those Situations' - Alan Pardew Damns Shane Long

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