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Dublin: -2°C Saturday 17 April 2021

'She dragged women’s football from the dark ages into the twenty-first century'

Emma Byrne will tonight make history as the first ever female inductee to the FAI’s Hall of Fame.

File photo of Emma Byrne.
File photo of Emma Byrne.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

EMMA BYRNE WILL tonight create history when she becomes the first female inductee to the FAI’s Hall of Fame.

It is a fitting tribute to Ireland’s most successful footballer. To start with the easy measurables: in 16 years with Arsenal Byrne won 28 major honours, including 11 league titles, 10 FA Cups and the 2007 Champions League.

Only Robbie Keane has played more often for Ireland at senior level, and Byrne’s 134 games makes her the most-capped women’s player of all time.

So, entirely appropriate that her sparkling achievements are enshrined. 

By their nature, these recognitions tend to fossilise careers, but Byrne’s will stubbornly evade such a fate. For whatever successes await women’s football in Ireland in the future, they will bear a lineage from Byrne’s career.

“She has left a legacy”, says her long-time international teammate Aine O’Gorman. “It’s a tough one for her, but she will be proud that she has left a legacy.”

Before Byrne walked away from international football, she took the time to make a final stand.

What we are fighting for here is equality”, she 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 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 so as they could be returned to underage men’s teams.

The players asked to be compensated for a loss of earnings when on international duty, access to a gym membership, a €300 match fee and to be represented in discussions by the PFAI. Were their demands not met, the squad threatened not to fulfill the upcoming fixture against Slovakia.

The press conference took place on 4 April, and the players’ demands were met by the FAI in less than 48 hours.

SIPTU’s Deputy General Secretary Ethel Buckley was involved that day, and remarked at a public meeting in Dublin last month at how swiftly an agreement was reached once a mediation process began.

Emma Byrne Emma Byrne and her teammates address the media at Liberty Hall. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

It was anything but swift for Byrne. She had been agitating for better treatment for the women’s team for years, giving an interview in March 2014 in which she threatened to quit over the FAI’s failure to compensate players, along with the Association’s withdrawal of a daily €30 allowance.

Byrne was then criticised publicly by her own manager Sue Ronan, who responded by saying she was “disappointed” by the “timing” and “inaccuracies” of Byrne’s comments, citing the fact that the daily allowances had been withdrawn for all international teams bar the senior men’s as proof that the women’s team had been “treated equally” by the FAI.

Byrne, along with Aine O’Gorman, refused to let the issue drop. Eventually, the battle led to Liberty Hall, and Byrne’s retirement four months later. “Thank you to the PFAI, SIPTU, the FAI and the Irish media for making my last battle a successful one.”, wrote Byrne in her farewell social media statement.

Buckley said the most important element of the squad’s success was their unity; their determination evident in the image of 14 players standing together before the media.

“The togetherness was a massive part of why it sent such a strong message”, remembers O’Gorman.

“Emma was the captain and she kept us all together. She had to lead by example and she showed great leadership.

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“When push came to shove, she kept us all together.

“She kept the team together. It was tough, what we had to do, but it has bettered women’s football and women’s sport in this country. She had a lot to do with it, and she can be very proud of that.”

PFAI solicitor Stuart Gilhooley sat alongside the squad at Liberty Hall.

“You can’t understate the role Emma Byrne played. She was the biggest and best name in the history of Irish women’s football, and will be for some time to come.

“Herself and Aine O’Gorman were regarded as the two leaders of the progress. They had been trying for two years to work with the FAI and bring about an improvement in conditions. They realised they were going nowhere and contacted the PFAI through [General Secretary] Stephen McGuinness.

“He could see that they were being treated as not second-class citizens, but fifth-class citizens.

“He said to Emma that they needed to be a united squad and that there was no room for weakness. If they wanted to get what they wanted, it was necessary that they were all together.

“Emma was 100% on board with that. Once she spoke, everyone was going to listen.”

Thus it came to pass.

The first qualification campaign after the players’ stance showed some encouraging signs, most notably a 0-0 draw away to European champions Holland which was achieved in spite of a spate of injuries.

“When Ireland do finally qualify for a major championships”, says Gilhooley, “people will look back at what Emma, Aine O’Gorman and all the players did, but particularly Emma, and say ‘She may not be here, and she may not be involved at all, but a large part of the credit for this goes to her in the same way as Roy Keane is given credit for professionalising the FAI after Saipan.

She is very different to Roy in so many ways, but in terms of her presence and her importance and how she was viewed by the players at that time, she had the presence of Roy Keane or Robbie Keane. 

“She was the one who said, ‘This needs to improve for future generations.’

“It’s important that everyone recognises that she wasn’t going to gain much for herself out of that. In fact, she gained almost nothing for herself out of that.

“I think she deserves similar, if not more credit, as she dragged women’s football from the dark ages into the twenty-first century.”

Byrne’s first job after school was actually with the FAI, working in the ticket office of the Association’s old headquarters on Merrion Square.

O’Gorman hopes Byrne is employed by the FAI again soon.

“It would be great to see her getting back involved in Irish football as she’s a huge loss. She could probably still be playing if she wanted to, and get to 200 caps!

“Her experience would be so valuable to anyone coming through.”

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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