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'It's definitely possible to build a league, but not in the current state. Not as we are'.

In the latest episode of Ireland 2029, we’ve looked at what steps are needed to create such a league the end of the decade.

Republic of Ireland Women v N Ireland Women - FIFA Women's World Cup 2019 - UEFA Qualifier - Group 3 - Tallaght Stadium Republic of Ireland's Katie McCabe and Northern Ireland's Laura Rafferty during the FIFA Women's World Cup. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

THE WOMEN’S WORLD Cup this summer was a triumph. 

In Ireland, the entire competition was broadcast on terrestrial TV for the first time ever. In Britain, TV viewing records were smashed.

In the United States, players like Megan Rapinoe are increasingly gaining renown for their actions both on and off the field, and becoming global superstars in the process.

After a brilliant start to their 2019 World Cup qualifying campaign, Ireland ran out of steam and failed to outmuscle Group 3 heavyweights Norway and the Netherlands, who eventually reached the final against champions United States. 

Colin’s Bell’s Irish side sadly finished in third place. This summer, Bell quit. 

His departure raised questions about the Football Association of Ireland (FAI)’s commitment to the women’s game. 

“The women’s national team has come on in leaps and bounds, but still, I was a little bit frustrated that work on the actual structures of underage football and the Women’s National League was going too slow, and I think I had a good plan in place to improve that,” Bell said following his departure. 

“I was told, basically, that things would carry on as they were to start off with, and then we’d see what happened, but that wasn’t good enough for me. I want progression at every level, and I think I would have been able to really, really grow the game.”

Bell. Bell was in charge of the Ireland Women's National Team for the past two years. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/NPHO

In this week’s episode of our Ireland 2029 podcast, we looked at what Bell’s “progression at every level” could look like and what steps need to be taken in the next decade for Ireland to create a world-class women’s national football league. 

Eight teams play in Ireland’s Women’s National League [WNL], which was first established in 2011, following the establishment of the Women’s Football Association of Ireland in 1973. 

There are currently 24,706 female footballers playing the sport in Ireland – 4,836 adult players and 19,871 female youth players. 

In recent years, Irish women’s football has had glorious moments. 

Who can forget Stephanie Roche’s goal for Peamount United against Wexford United in October 2013 which went viral on YouTube and brought her international attention?

Yet such triumphs have been overshadowed by equity issues. 

What we are fighting for here is equality”, footballer Emma Byrne told the media assembled at Liberty Hall in April 2017. “We are fighting for the future of women’s football.”

The country was rapt to attention in 2017 by the united front of 14 international players that day, standing together with representatives of SIPTU and the PFAI as they laid out their demands for better treatment from the FAI.

The players’ demands were modest and their burdens, to that point, considerable, having been forced to change out of tracksuits in airport toilets.

‘Proactive Approach’

For recently retired Irish international footballer Karen Duggan, without Top-Down structural change – and increased visibility of women’s football – creating a world-class league will be challenging. 

“It needs to stop being an afterthought, the women’s game, the women’s national league” Duggan told Ireland 2029. “We understand that we don’t generate revenue, we’re not bringing in audiences.

But we’re not going to do that with a reactive nature. It has to be proactive. It needs to become an agenda for someone high up.

Duggan (28) – who plays for Dublin side Peamount United, and has also represented UCD Waves – argues that until visibility is raised through sponsorship partnering, it will continue to fall to local clubs to promote women’s football in Ireland. 

Edel Kennedy tackles Karen Duggan Peamount United star Karen Duggan is tackled by Wexford's Edel Kennedy. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Last season, Wexford Youths — who are currently in Champions League action — won the league en route to sealing a domestic treble. They also lifted the league title in 2017. Their successful promotion of the side on social media has led to significant boosts on the field.

Interest and attendances have also increased at Shelbourne. In March, they dropped the word ‘Ladies’ from their women’s team and integrated them into the entire club’s social media channels in a number of progressive steps to achieve equality. 

Rather than having separate feeds for their men’s and women’s teams, all under the one umbrella has worked well.

Retention issues in Irish women’s football, too, must be addressed. 

“There’s not as many girls my age playing because it’s a lot of commitment if you’re not going to take the next step and go professional,” Duggan said. 

“The more people go abroad, it opens people’s eyes to what’s available to girls outside of Ireland.

The National League has been great for me. It allowed me to plays for my country for many years and it’s allowing girls to showcase their talents.

“But now, more so, it’s showcasing their talents with a view to getting a professional contract elsewhere.”

So, could taking a leaf from a different Irish sport provide answers?

Helen O’Rourke has been CEO of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) since 1997. 

The LGFA now has over 180,000 members, many of whom play Gaelic football at club level, with over 1,000 clubs participating. 

“What people really see is the elite end of our sport and they think of our sport as the inter-county sector of it. But really that’s only one very small part of of it. The huge growth within our sport has been at underage in schools.”

“Within our sport we have young girls playing from 12 years and up and those numbers are just huge throughout the country.”

Yet as O’Rourke can attest if the public can’t see the sport being played, “you can’t promote the sport.”

Sinead Aherne Dublin won last year's All-Ireland final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“People aren’t coming to our games if people can’t see the sport on television,” O’Rourke said. “Well then nobody knows about and you’re just depending on locals to support it.”

In 2001, TG4 partnered with the LGFA as their main sponsor. That changed the trajectory of the organisation. 

Instead of fighting for TV coverage for Ladies Gaelic Football, the LGFA could bring big games into people’s home, increasing visibility which in turn had a trickle-down affect at club level. 

I think what we have can be replicated for other sports… I think if you look at your players you have to look at everybody. It can’t just be the elite.”

For footballer Duggan, visibility and exposure are massive going forward. As the 20×20 slogan reads: if she can’t see it, she can’t be it

And social media allows the perfect opportunity to let everyone see just that. 

“It’s something very simple,” she noted. “I remember when Lidl brought out the pink ball and the entire country was up in arms. It was one of the most effective marketing things, and it was so, so simple.

It only takes something like that to spark it in the Women’s National League. With social media now, there’s no excuse really not having it out there.

“It just takes that one investor or that one catchy marketing technique to propel it. You just hope that someone takes it by the scruff of the neck.”

While there were mixed opinions across the board, one thing that was agreed on was the fact that someone — like O’Rourke did in the LGFA — needs to take charge of the entire situation and bring the domestic game to a new level on these shores.

“It just really does need to become someone’s agenda,” Duggan re-iterated. “Someone needs to take it by the scruff of the neck and just run with it.

“I don’t know who that’s going to be. It has to be someone from within the FAI, or someone who is a investor, a big company to back it. The girls can do all they can, they can keep acting professionally, putting on these great games.

“But at the end of the day, if they’re not being seen and not being backed, it’s really not going to have any use.

“It’s definitely possible,” the Peamount midfielder concluded when questioned if Ireland can build a world-class women’s national football league.

“But not in the current state. Not as we are, it’s not just going to kick into gear.”

Whether or not we can build one, one thing’s for sure: improvements can be made across the board. They’re needed — and fast.

Additional reporting by Emma Duffy

You can listen to the seventh episode of Ireland 2029: Shaping Our Future in full below:


Source: Ireland 2029/SoundCloud

 

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