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Dublin: 20 °C Tuesday 16 July, 2019
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'Why not include the women? It's a great product and a great opportunity for the GAA'

Cork manager Ephie Fitzgerald on how amalgamation with the GAA would bring ladies football to the next level.

Cork boss Ephie Fitzgerald.
Cork boss Ephie Fitzgerald.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

LOADS DONE, BUT a lot more to do. And all in good time, hopefully.

That’s the general feeling of Cork manager Ephie Fitzgerald at the 2019 TG4 All-Ireland championship launch as he once again called on the Ladies Gaelic Football Association [LGFA] to affiliate with the GAA to drive ladies football to the next level.

We’re right in the thick of another year of improvements made and standards raised across the board, momentum around women’s sport growing to unprecedented levels.

And Fitzgerald acknowledges that, but hopes ladies football can aim higher and higher over the next few years.

“There’s a momentum there now that’s unstoppable really,” he begins.

“Having the [All-Ireland] semi-finals here in Croke Park is massive and raises the profile again. It’s a massive step up again. To be fair to the ladies football, the venues we’ve had for championship games have always been very, very good.

“The only downside is the crowds. The venues, and the coverage given by TG4 is second to none. I do think we need that little more support.

“Which brings me to the question of should we be affiliated to the GAA? From the point of view of expenses for the players and the fact that we don’t get crowds at matches – - it’s not feasible to give girls expenses if the money isn’t there for it. That’s something that definitely needs to be looked at.

“Any of our league matches — and we’re one of the most successful teams — if there’s a hundred people there that’s a lot, and it’s normally parents and a few friends that will attend.

“The way forward for me is affiliation with the GAA. The games would then be played, as they’re beginning to be, together with men’s games. It gives you a fantastic day out, you have a crowd and everyone is happy.”

While there have been back-to-back record crowds on All-Ireland final day the past two years — the 2018 decider drew 50,151 to HQ — there’s been no improvement at regular games however.

“A few hundred” in attendance at their Division 1 league final against Galway in Parnell Park, he reckons, the same again for their Munster final win over Waterford. Last year’s All-Ireland semi-final double-header crowd at Dr Hyde Park was “very poor”.

“You could argue that Roscommon was a bit out of the way for people but if the men were playing there it would be full,” Fitzgerald frowns.

“I dunno what the answer is. It just needs to gather a bit of traction and momentum. I do think it’s improving but I don’t think you’ll ever get to stage of getting 10,000 at a ladies match.”

He’s mentioned it already, but expenses has been a hot topic in ladies football circles over the past few weeks. 

A new initiative between Mayo LGFA and Top Oil was announced in June, which saw Peter Leahy’s senior side become the first ladies inter-county team in Ireland to have their fuel expenses completely covered.

The need for players to be paid expenses and reimbursed is something Fitzgerald has spoken at length about in the past, and this groundbreaking partnership just drives him on more.

The big issue is the amount of time and effort put in by the girls,” the Nemo Rangers club man continues. “No one should be out of pocket for representing their county.

“We have girls coming form Castletownbere. If you sat into a car in Cork and drove to Dublin you’d be there as quick. We’re relying on their parents to bring them sometimes.

“Melissa Duggan is based in Dublin and comes down on a Wednesday night. She leaves at 2pm and is up at 5am the next morning to get back to college. It’s not easy but it’s costly as well. They’re reliant on their parents a lot.

Our county board are excellent, we’ve no issue with them and I know if we asked for expenses for the girls, they’d give it but that is finite. If we started drawing expenses for everyone the kitty would dry up very, very quickly so none of us take expenses in management.

“Unless there’s an affiliation with the GAA I can’t see how that’s going to improve,” he added in conversation after with The42.

“Women just don’t support women, it doesn’t happen. For whatever reason, I dunno.

“It’ll probably take time, it’ll probably take a generation before… if you look at the Women’s World Cup as an example, the last five or six World Cups, there was hardly anyone at them. The grounds were full here, it was unbelievable.

Libbby Coppinger and Ephie Fitzgerald celebrate after the game Fitzgerald with Libby Coppinger. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“The exposure Fifa get, they’re unbelievable – and a great product as well. The skill levels were fabulous. I watched a lot of the games, they were fantastic games.”

One thing he didn’t watch quite as much of was the men’s recent Ulster final between Donegal and Cavan. He firmly believes the ladies’ game is a more worthwhile watch.

“It actually is better to look at. I turned off the Ulster final there a couple of weeks ago, I thought it was the most boring load of… ‘We’ll get 13 behind the ball, ye get 13 behind the ball.’ It’s crazy stuff. 

“That’s the beauty of the ladies game, they go at one another and it’s a good product. If people are watching the game, it grows on them.

“I do think there needs to be an affiliation with Croke Park. That would provide structure — and I’m including the camogie too — to avoid fixture clashes, provide expenses, make more double-headers. Play all the championship games prior to men’s games so you’d have a crowd, just a more coordinated effort to do things together and create an atmosphere at the games.

It’s a great product and it’s a great opportunity for the GAA too. We’ve a 120 years or whatever of men’s football and hurling. Why not include the women? I don’t think there’s any losers in the thing really.”

Elsewhere, eagerly awaiting their opening All-Ireland round-robin series fixture against Cavan in two weekends’ time, Fitzgerald shares a mixed report on the injury front.

“Niamh Cotter broke a bone in her hand last week so she’ll be out for a few weeks,” he tells The42, explaining that it’ll mean four to five weeks on the sidelines but it could have been a lot worse.

“But on the flip side of that we have Doireann O’Sullivan back to full training. She’s missed most of the year so Doireann is really raring to go. She’ll be a huge addition to us. She’s pain-free and injury-free thank God, so hopefully she’ll get a good run at it.”

The return of the side’s captain from a back injury will come as a huge boost, with herself and her sister, Ciara, “the driving force of the team”.

Similarly to how we started, he rounds off with the big news of the day: the confirmation that this year’s All-Ireland semi-finals will be played at Croke Park on Sunday, 25 August, for the first time ever

Another improvement, yes, but loads more to do.

“Having the semi-finals here regardless of who’s in them is a massive step up again,” he concludes.

“You’ll have four counties involved; big crowds, good atmosphere and girls playing in Croke Park. That’s all good. I think there’s progress being made but it’s just slow.”

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Emma Duffy

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