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‘Ignoring it wasn’t the answer’ – The Irish teen footballer who exposed disgraceful online abuse

Shelbourne player Jessie Stapleton on her recent tweet that went viral.

Jessie Stapleton (left) competes with Jess Redfern during last month's FAI U17 league final.
Jessie Stapleton (left) competes with Jess Redfern during last month's FAI U17 league final.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

SOME PEOPLE ADVISED her to stay quiet, but Jessie Stapleton had had enough.

Just before Christmas, the highly rated 15-year-old Ireland underage international competed in the Women’s U17 league final for Shamrock Rovers in their 2-0 defeat to Cork City.

The match itself, though, was not the main topic of conversation in the group chat when the players got home afterwards.

Instead, an abundance of disgraceful, sexist comments by trolls on a livestream broadcast of the match became the central talking point.

Deeply unimpressed by these remarks, the group decided to make them public and Stapleton volunteered to be the messenger.

The subsequent tweet, accompanied with the line “what comes with playing girls football in Ireland,” went viral. 

At the time of writing, it has over 5,000 likes and more than 900 retweets.

To say it had the desired effect would be an understatement. The Football Association of Ireland and Shamrock Rovers were among those to condemn the comments after Stapleton put out the tweet, and the story was covered by numerous media outlets.

“I didn’t expect it to blow up, because I literally had 50 followers and I was [usually] getting three likes for a tweet,” she tells The42. “I don’t really use Twitter much, but we knew it would be better to use Twitter than the likes of Instagram, because of the retweets.

“We started off just sending it to our friends. They were like: ‘That’s disgusting.’ We knew that other people thought it was horrible, so when we posted it, teammates started retweeting it, then my friends that played for different teams [did likewise]. Then it just got further and further. In the first hour or so, there were hundreds of likes on it.”

And while the feedback Stapleton received was largely positive, not everyone felt the comments should have been highlighted.

“There weren’t many negative responses and when there were, I sort of just ignored it. Some were saying: ‘Don’t give them your energy, just ignore it.’ But it’s been ignored too long. Girls in football, girls with platforms need to speak out if they can.

“You get a lot of [abusive comments] in women’s football. It’s known to just ignore it. This time, we just thought ignoring it wasn’t the answer, because if we don’t speak out, it’s never going to get fixed.”

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At 15, Stapleton has already made significant strides in the game. By the time the Cherry Orchard youth product was 12, she had already been capped by Ireland U15s. At 13, she was even called in to train with Colin Bell’s senior Ireland squad. It is only next month, when she turns 16, that the defender will technically be eligible to represent the Irish senior team. She explains that this status as a high-achiever in the game helped give her the confidence to speak out against the recent abuse.

“I’ve played in boys’ football for years and years at the highest level. I’ve had a level of respect from the boys. When you have a name for yourself, they respect you. But when you’re in school and you’re talking about football, they disregard your achievements, because you’re a girl basically.

“I’m not saying [female footballers should speak out] if they’re uncomfortable speaking out. I was more comfortable speaking out, because of the background I have in boys’ football. If I had the little smart boys [saying] ‘you’re not good, you’re not this,’ I can show what I’ve done in boys’ football and say: ‘Look, have you done this too?’

“So I have something to back it up and then I have all my friends, all the girls that play football to back me up, so I was confident when posting it. I’d recommend more girls to be brave, because there is a lot of positivity out there and a lot of goodwill around women’s football.”

She continues: “When I heard about the comments online and I didn’t see what they were, I expected them to be your normal ‘oh, these aren’t good, it’s women’s football, make me a sandwich’ and all that — you expect those comments. But when it got to that stage of the [even more vile] comments, it was disgusting.

“I don’t think anybody would [say it in person] to the extent they did in that YouTube live. And I don’t think they realised it was live and once you put something on the internet, it’s there for good.”

Stapleton, who signed for Shelbourne earlier this week, says players were offered support by the club “if they needed it,” following the controversy.

Asked what can be done to combat the issue that is evidently a problem in football and society at a deeper level, Stapleton says education can provide a solution.

“We just have to let people know that it’s not normal and it’s not going to be accepted. From my post, the positivity and the feedback it got back, the amount of times it got spread around, all the newspapers covering it and you doing this interview now, it’ll show young girls that even if they are getting those comments, there are as many people out there who support them and it’s a positive side of women’s football. It’s actually something they can do and it’s a good environment for them.

“There’s this one boy that we knew, he wrote a few comments and he was posting on [the livestream]. I texted him about it and was just saying: ‘This is wrong.’ He’s learned from it and fair play to him, he admitted that he was wrong.”

And is the unfortunate result of such abuse that it ultimately discourages some young girls from seriously pursuing soccer?

“It definitely can. You see a lot of girls dropping out around 15-16. They lose the love for football, but this is part of it. I can see girls looking at it as a hobby rather than young boys at 15-16 looking at it as a job and one they can make a life out of. If girls start seeing it the way boys see it, it can be a job, it can be a career, you can make a life out of it.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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