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'I don't blame players, leaving the game or going to play GAA'

Ex-Peamount and UCD Waves boss Eileen Gleeson on the problems that continue to hamper women’s football in Ireland.

Eileen Gleeson coached Peamount to the treble in 2010 and also oversaw their run to the last 32 of the Champions League.
Eileen Gleeson coached Peamount to the treble in 2010 and also oversaw their run to the last 32 of the Champions League.
Image: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

EILEEN GLEESON KNOWS women’s football in Ireland better than most. She has been coaching at various levels for over 20 years. Prior to then, as a footballer, she was “hard-working,” but not particularly talented.

“I wouldn’t be highlighting anything about my playing days,” she says.

The Clondalkin native played in the 1990s, around the time of Olivia O’Toole, “probably” the best-ever Irish female player, according to Gleeson.

Gleeson lined out for Blacklions in the Civil Service League and for Ballymun United and Hammond Celtic in the Dublin Women’s Soccer League.

But it was as a manager rather than a player that Gleeson began to truly distinguish herself. She started off coaching Ballymun United, working on a FÁS training programme and a soccer coach programme in the early 2000s.

“I don’t really compare the two — playing and coaching are two different crafts,” she explains. “Coaching is a whole other level of organisation and interpersonal relationships.

“I think there’s still a train of thought that it’s ‘a natural progression,’ and maybe it is a natural progression, but you still learn your trade as a coach — playing is not coaching and coaching is not playing. The only way to learn how to coach is to coach.

“If you don’t get the results, the respect you earned as a player won’t really matter if you get sacked.

The biggest thing for me with coaching is dealing with people, communication, you will have conflict. How do you deal with conflict? I make that my focus of it — the person is at the centre of it. The game will be the game. There will be new trends and tactics, but it will remain 11 v 11.

“You need to reflect on how your behaviour is impacting on your player. A young coach might not realise that. You might be so focused on what coaching qualification you have and [think] you know more than the player. But to me, it has to be a two-way process. That communication and that openness and that willingness to have players involved in the decision-making process.”

After the stint with Ballymun, Gleeson enjoyed some success with St James’s Gate before the team disbanded. In the mid-2000s, she took over at Peamount, where she would enjoy many memorable days.

“I met the chairman,” she recalls. “They wanted to win things, they were always second or third, so that was the objective.”

To say they succeeded in this aim would putting it mildly. During Gleeson’s tenure, Peamount became one of the most successful Irish women’s football sides ever. Their crowning achievement was a treble in 2010, while they also reached the Champions League on two occasions, 2011-12 and 2012-13, reaching the round of 32 on the former occasion.

Louise Quinn Louise Quinn (right) leads Peamount out during a 2011 Champions League game. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

That Peamount side included a number of players who have gone on to even greater achievements. They were captained at one stage by Louise Quinn, who recently won the Women’s Super League with Arsenal. Other members of the team included Sara Lawlor, Denise O’Sullivan, Stephanie Roche, Aine O’Gorman, Susan Byrne, Julie-Ann Russell, Karen Duggan and future boxing star Katie Taylor, who helped the team win the treble two years before claiming a gold medal in boxing at the 2012 Olympics.

Gleeson puts her success at Peamount down to “a combination of my approach to a creating and learning environment”.

She adds: “Empower the players to be able to express themselves. You had Sara Lawlor, who grew up in Peamount and was flying under the radar of international football and being able to score goals freely. It caused a bit of a recruitment drive. Other players were brought in to strengthen the squad — Áine O’Gorman, Sue Byrne, so there was continuous recruitment and development. Peamount at that stage were probably the biggest club in Ireland for women’s football in terms of the underage section. You’re going into a club with good structures and pathways for players to come through.”

In 2014, however, Gleeson opted to leave Peamount. She linked up with UCD Waves instead and a number of players followed, including O’Gorman, Duggan, Dora Gorman, Chloe Mustaki and Emily Cahill.

Source: Mary White/YouTube

While Gleeson could not replicate the scale of her achievements at Peamount, UCD some success during this period, finishing second in the 2014-15 WNL, losing out to Wexford Youths by a mere two points and reaching the FAI Cup final in 2014, where they narrowly were beaten 2-1 by Raheny after extra-time, and lost out thanks in part to a phenomenal free kick by future Ireland captain Katie McCabe (see above). In 2016, meanwhile, they reached the League Cup final, only to lose 3-2 against a Shelbourne team that included future West Ham star and Ireland international Leanne Kiernan.

“I had a new challenge at UCD,” Gleeson says. “Some players I was familiar with and some new players. It was a challenge developing them into a competitive side.

“It was refreshing working with new people. It gave me a chance to change some of my approaches myself as well.

“UCD Waves at that stage had adopted a very player-centric approach. They had great resources. It was down to me to try to raise the standards again and to have players that also wanted to raise the standards and try a more professional approach.”

Katie Taylor Katie Taylor was among the players Gleeson worked with at Peamount. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ultimately, however, Gleeson decided she needed a break from coaching, stepping down from her role with UCD Waves after three seasons in charge in January 2017.

“At that stage, I’d been coaching in the Dublin league and the National League for 20-plus years. I’d done the Uefa pro-license and masters [in Coaching and Exercise Science at UCD] around the same time — 2015-16. I was intending on starting a PHD then in the new season and working full-time, so there were a lot of demands there.

“In terms of the National League, I felt like I was doing the same thing over and over again. I was getting tired myself. So I made a decision that I needed a break to focus on the PhD [on decision-making in soccer, with an emphasis on women’s soccer].”

So while the PhD and work is keeping her busy these days, does she ever find herself missing the challenges of coaching?

“I don’t miss it yet, no. It felt like I was having the same discussions over and over again. Maybe it was time for me to refresh my approach as well and be able to reflect. Right now, I’m enjoying the research aspect of it. I can watch the games without any stress.”

There have been significant developments in Irish women’s soccer since Gleeson left coaching behind indefinitely, most notably the protest involving the national team that ultimately led to better working conditions for them.

Nevertheless, Gleeson still believes major problems continue to exist with the sport in this country, most notably in relation to the Women’s National League. The Uefa-backed league was formed in 2011, with her Peamount team claiming the inaugural title, though the Dubliner is frustrated with the lack of progress that has been made since then.

While the sport’s popularity among women in Ireland has grown significantly over the years, Gleeson is unsure whether the standard is any better than it was during her time playing in the Dublin Women’s Soccer League.

“People felt like it was a step forward as an elite league, or a league to provide a competitive platform for the elite players or the home-based internationals to play in. I feel like the 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. There’s a big discrepancy between the top and bottom, games are finishing 10-0. I don’t know how that benefits the team winning or losing.

If I was to compare when I played, with Peamount, in the Dublin Soccer League, we would have had three or four very competitive games against Raheny or St Catherines. We still have that same level in the National League. There may be two or three competitive games. It’s 50 grand to be in. Has the standard been raised? I’m not sure.

“When we had an application with Peamount to join the National League in its first year, the emphasis was on the application and the criteria was that you had elite players. I put together the application and we had to track every player back through representative squads, international representation.

“Now, you try to go into the National League and you don’t have a team. There’s too much of a disparity between a developmental team that may not even reach the standards of the Premier Division Dublin League now in the National League. 

“The home-based international players, how do they get competitive games? How do we bridge the gap between the international players who play [abroad] week in week out and home-based players that play a couple of competitive games and 10-0 games.

“What is the focus of the National League? Is it to have a National League by demographic? Right now, it’s a National League by demographic. How do you bridge that gap? 

“It requires a lot of communication between the FAI and the league with the colleges and the clubs. As long as I’ve been involved, that kind of consultation has never really [existed].

“If we want the internationals to be ready for a competitive international match, a fixture against a team you’re going to beat 10-0 before you go and play Spain, how does that compare? The intensity is not there. At the centre of everything is the player. There’s a demand for the player from the colleges, the clubs, the international teams, yet there’s very little communication between those three entities.

“They need a greater strategy. What is the hierarchy? International football, club football, college football. What’s the priority? We would assume it’s international football. Can we improve the scheduling of fixtures to enhance international performance? Are there college games scheduled the same day as National League games? I’ve had that experience. So does the player play two matches? That, for me, is an administration and scheduling problem.”

Eileen Gleeson Gleeson pictured during her time with UCD. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Gleeson adds that the WNL continues to be marred by a paucity of support and a lack of professionalism at times.

“I’ve had a lot of conflict during my time as a coach and manager with regards to standards. The first year of the National League was good. We had this licensing agreement and you had to meet it, and for the most part, it was met. 

“The second year, teams didn’t show up for games. You just see the standards slipping away and slipping away. And what happens?

“[In some instances] there’s no referee or medical staff at the match. I feel very strongly about this. How do we expect players to raise their standards if the structure around them doesn’t stick to this criteria? What’s the point of having the criteria? Either have it or don’t.

You’re expecting players to turn up for training and plan their whole lifestyle and life around this commitment to raise their standards. Then, come Sunday, the opposition might not turn up, or the referee might not turn up. Or there’s no ambulance in sight or no promotion of the game. There’s no record of a score. It’s the standards that are key. I don’t blame players, leaving the game or going to play GAA. If the organisation doesn’t maintain the standards, how can you expect the players to?”

And Gleeson has witnessed highly talented footballers being lost to the sport partially as a result of the inept organisation around it.

“It’s frustrating for me, because you’re trying to keep your standards up. It’s different for the clubs — you have this club licensing agreement, everybody’s ticking the boxes, we’re going to do this and this. Maybe they don’t have the capacity to do it. And then, when it comes to it, it’s a struggle. So in the end, they haven’t got enough players to field a team.

“So much emphasis is being placed on the National League, teams feel like they have to be in it, or the players feel they have to play in it because: ‘This is the pathway to international soccer.’”

Gleeson is hopeful that the situation can by improved by a greater level of female representation on the new FAI board whenever it is assembled. It was only in July 2017 when Niamh O’Donoghue was appointed as the sole female member of the board, while Rea Walshe replaced John Delaney as chief executive of the association on an interim basis back in March.

The outlook on women’s football, however, is not entirely pessimistic. Across the water in England, there have been some significant strides in relation to sponsorship and promotion, even if the situation there remains problematic in some regards

Rea Walshe Rea Walshe was recently appointed as the FAI's interim CEO amid a turbulent period for the association. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Gleeson adds that the recent improvements made by the GAA and the growth in popularity enjoyed by camogie and ladies football should serve as a template for those intent on raising standards within women’s soccer.

“What’s the GAA doing that gets 50,000 to the cup final? Is there ever a conversation to find out? I don’t know if there is. And if not, why not?

“[The GAA are] doing a phenomenal job. It’s brilliant to see and it’s great for the players, and there is that support — people come out and go to the match.

But what’s the core problem here? There’s a lack of promotion. There’s a lot of lip service and a lot of token gestures, but there’s no follow through. A few weeks ago on Soccer Republic, there was a piece on Shelbourne playing DLR Waves. But since then, there hasn’t been anything about the National League. There’s no continuity. Sometimes the scores are up on the National League Twitter page, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes the fixtures are up, sometimes they’re not. This is your National League. I don’t feel like there’s any promotion. That’s really the area that should be focused on. If people don’t know the games are on, how can you raise the profile of players that are playing in the league?

“With the FA and the WSL, there’s goal of the month, player of the month, so there’s a bit of buzz being created about it. It’s non-existent [in Ireland].”

Gleeson cites campaigns such as the 20×20 initiative as providing more scope for optimism, but emphasises the need to act on the current problems rather than simply acknowledging them.

“There were national cup finals at underage level recently and there were [senior] league matches at the same time for the clubs that were in the final.

“Peamount had U14 and U16 teams in the finals, and their other girls’ teams had scheduled matches [for the same time], so they actually couldn’t bring their club to create crowds. So if you can’t see, it can’t be. If this is on, make it an event, promote it and don’t have other events that clash. If there’s no league fixtures that day, every club gets free tickets to bring their girls along to create an event out of it. Try to get people in the ground. It’s empty and it’s empty for the players as well. It’d be great if people came out. Promotion is key.”

She continues: “Shelbourne, for example, it’s a step forward. It’s not Shelbourne FC and Shelbourne Ladies, it’s just Shelbourne. It’s one club, one vision, not [separated between] men’s and women’s football. Man City are the same, all their promotion has the ladies and the men’s teams. Football is for footballers. There should be no differentiation between men and women.

“Everybody has good intentions and we want the game to get better, the clubs are doing a phenomenal job on the ground, they are up against those barriers. You strive to push those barriers and keep maintaining your standards.”

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Paul Fennessy

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