'There are players doing their Leaving Cert: none get paid, they all do it for the love of the game'

With a squad including college students, school goers, fitness instructors and secondary school teachers Limerick Women’s FC made their debut last Saturday.

WITH IRELAND ON the brink of securing a historic Grand Slam in Twickenham later today and a third Six Nations title in five years already achieved, having a local hero like Keith Earls as the face of your business is an absolute dream, admits Marie Curtin.

The Limerick FC defender waxes lyrical about Moyross local Earls’ magnetic passion for his community and of promoting local start-ups. He is a genuine role model and quite literally the face of her business, she laughs. “Sure we have him on the bottle!”

unnamed Therese Hartley, Megan Kelleher and Claire Kelly before kick-off. Source: Michael O'Shea

Curtin is the managing director of Temple Dairy, which produces milk protein drinks used by both Limerick and Munster Rugby, as well as being stocked in shops up and down the country.

The business is her day-job away from the football pitch, establishing the company alongside her father three years ago in her late 20s, having grown up on a farm in Limerick.

Away from business her life’s passion is football. They are long, tough days balancing both, but seeing Limerick establish its first ever senior women’s football team at the start of 2018 was enough for the former Ireland international to reconsider retirement and pull the boots on again.

If not for Limerick’s first senior women’s team, the 32-year-old admits she would have called it a day. “It probably would have been me finished,” she says.

I am still at a decent age in terms of playing but when I came back a few years ago I had to travel to Cork and to Galway. The distance was just too much.

cG8KGom4 Defender Marie Curtin has played for both Ireland and the Limerick gaelic footballers. Source: Michael O'Shea

“I had to call it a day mid-season a few years ago because I was running the business and it was just too difficult to keep football going. The time involved in getting down to training and taking part in sessions and preparing for match-days — it was too difficult.

“Now it’s just a dream to have football on my own doorstep. I’m glad that I’ve come back to play because that fire is still burning in me.”

Limerick Women’s Football Club are the eighth team to make up the Continental Tyres Women’s National League, taking their place for the 2018 campaign which kicked off in tremendous style with a 4-0 win against Kilkenny United last Sunday.

For the first time in the history of the football club founded in 1937, we will now be represented by a national senior women’s team,” long-serving owner Pat O’Sullivan said speaking in January.

“As chairman, it is more significant as it reflects the respect that this club holds for women, and I want to emphasise how much better the world and our community would be if women were shown the respect that they are entitled to in our society.”

unnamed (1) Limerick Women's Football Club got up and running with a 4-0 win last Sunday. Source: Michael O'Shea

Manager Dave Rooney asserts that the passion and desire to finally have a local senior team in the county was visible in Curtin before kick-off at the Markets Field last weekend.

“She was very emotional because it clearly meant a lot to her as a Limerick girl. To be out on that pitch in the Markets Field representing the club is probably something she never thought would happen and a day she never thought she’d see,” he says.

She’s played international football, been part of university teams, has played abroad in Norway — she dropped out of women’s football because she felt she couldn’t make the commitment to travel up and down to Cork or across to Galway. I’m sure she never thought she’d see this day.”

It’s a team that has had to be assimilated at short notice and one which has among its ranks an entrepreneur in Curtin, a fitness instructor, a teacher, a primary school coach, as well as a number of students in university and school completing their Leaving Certificate.

Like all Women’s National League players, there is no pay. It’s the opposite in fact; players pay full membership to see themselves represent the club. Captain Therese Hartley teaches at a secondary school, before training three nights a week and playing a game at the weekend.

She maintains that a simple love of the game makes the sacrifices worthwhile.

“I’m lucky because my school are very accommodating when it comes to anything got to do with football,” she says.

image1 (4) Captain Therese Hartley leads the team out at the Markets Field. Source: Michael O'Shea

“Without that sort of backing it does make it more difficult, so I’m lucky that they’re very good to me. It’s a big commitment in terms of the time you’re putting in, but we do it because we love playing football and enjoy it.

“I think anyone that gets to play at a national level understands that it’s an honour because you’re putting yourself up against the very best every week.”

Hartley enjoyed a previous spell at Galway United but on Sunday became the first ever skipper of Limerick, leading the team out on a historic day at the Markets Field for an occasion made sweeter by the 4-0 win which unfolded on the pitch.

It’s an honour,” she says. “Any time you’re even asked to be captain it’s a huge honour, so it is something that I’m very proud of personally and am grateful for.

“But look, it’s a team game and we’re lucky that we have a good few experienced players. There are a lot of leaders in this side and the new players are stepping up too.

“Personally it was a great honour, but it’s a team game and hopefully we can press on and have a good season.”

Limerick is a renowned city of sport with the Gaelic Grounds, Thomond Park and the Markets Field each enjoying high attendances and high-level success across different codes. Crucially though, all sports are vying for the best athletes to stick with them over another.

With the establishment of Limerick WFC, manager Rooney says the opportunity to harness local talent and create a pathway straight towards international squads is an essential incentive for young girls to pick football and stick with it.

With the current senior international team realistically holding the potential of becoming the first Irish women’s team to ever qualify for a World Cup, and manager Colin Bell regularly picking players belonging to local clubs in the Women’s National League, the impetus is there, the Limerick manager says.

Colin has demonstrated that if you are good enough, you will play for Ireland. Even if that means putting you in midfield against the European champions away in Holland in front of 10,000 in a World Cup qualifier — that’s how much faith he has in these players.

“Isabel Atkinson (Shelbourne FC) is training with the full international team. Heather Payne, who only recently turned 18, is in there as well with the national team. So if you are good enough, it doesn’t matter what age you are — and that’s some incentive for young girls to come and play football.

Dave_Rooney Limerick manager Dave Rooney. Source: Michael O'Shea

“If you are 16, 17 and in two minds over whether you want to play football or camogie, and the Ireland national team manager is saying come and play football and I’ll give you a chance, with enough hard work you could be representing your country. That really is a great incentive.”

This Limerick team is a telling example of the old cliche of “youth and experience”, with midfielder Sylvia Gee not only playing at the highest level in Ireland at 40-years-old, but excelling in the process, scoring a fine low volley in their 4-0 win last Sunday.

“Personally it’s great because Limerick would be the closest club to me,” she says. “My first club Listowel Celtic played in the Limerick league back 20 years ago.

It will be a great thing for women’s football in Limerick because it’s historically always been a strong area, but the opportunities might not have been there for players to play in a national league.”

A former Ireland international, Gee received her Uefa B licence a number of years ago and blends coaching primary school children alongside her own playing career.

She is ambitious about the year ahead and admits that the fun and pleasure of scoring at a venue like the Markets Field as part of a new and exciting venture reinforces her belief that she will never call it a day and retire.

OGxE9qFP 2 Sylvia Gee pictured in action for Limerick and during an Ireland international in 1999. Source: Michael O'Shea

“Ah yeah it’s always nice to score a goal,” she laughs. “It’s been quite a while since I’ve been on the score-sheet so for me it doesn’t matter what way it goes in.”

“I don’t think I will ever hang up my boots,” she adds in a text message after we speak. “Sure there’s always walking football for when I can’t run anymore!”

The 40-year-old is one of a number of players for whom Limerick presents an opportunity that simply was not there in previous years for women to play football at a national level. Like her team-mates, if Gee wanted to play football at the highest level in Ireland, the nearest clubs available would have been close to 150 km away.

There is an excitement about the new Women’s National League campaign getting underway, but also all too familiar setbacks. Two games were postponed last weekend due to unplayable pitches at Ferrycarrig Park and Peamount United, however this was due to the adverse weather effects owing to Storm Emma.

It was a genuine reason why the game had to be called off,” Rooney says. “Ferrycarrig Park was under snow all week, so I’ve no doubt it was more disappointing to the players and managers of Wexford than anyone else because they want to get up and running.”

The news was greeted with reluctant disappointment and brought minds back to the last time a WNL match was postponed when a UCD Waves game was forced to be called off due to a referee not showing up against Kilkenny United at Jackson Park.

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Another unsavoury scene from recent memory saw the Cork City team warm-up before their 2015 FAI Cup final meeting with Dundalk on the pitch while a penalty shootout between Wexford Youths and Shelbourne Ladies was taking place in the Women’s FAI Cup decider.

DYBPhmyWkAAN4XL Kilkenny United and Limerick shake hands as the Women's National League season gets underway. Source: Michael O'Shea

Players and management at Limerick state with confidence that they are being treated on a par with their male counterparts and that all facilities available to Tommy Barrett’s side are there for Rooney’s team too.

A number of the squad’s players admit they have felt let down as representatives of women’s football in Ireland in years gone by, but the passion and actions of chairman O’Sullivan and Limerick means they feel reassured and privileged to pull on the jersey this season and that the team are going about it the right way.

“There’s none of this changing in toilets business,” boss Rooney says defiantly, referencing the senior women’s team’s April 2017 press conference which saw players including Stephanie Roche and ex-Arsenal goalkeeper Emma Byrne reveal the “humiliating” conditions they had to endure.

I work out of the same office as Tommy Barrett, I have access to the same staff… Joe Gamble works with our strength and conditioning crew, we have nutritionists, we have match analysis packages and also all the same gym and kits at the University of Limerick, all the way down to the footballs — it’s the same the boys have.

“We have everything we need. To be fair to Pat and the club they promised me that from day one and have delivered on every commitment they’ve made to me and the girls.”

Limerick face a trip to CIT to take on FAI Cup holders Cork City on Sunday. Cork, too, have made important strides in their efforts towards women’s football, amalgamating it’s men’s and women’s team under the same name back in January.

Speaking with the players associated with Limerick you cannot help but be encouraged by the genuine enthusiasm from the squad on top of the backing they have received from the club’s hierarchy.

“Pat met the girls after the game on Sunday and he was very eloquent and very passionate in his words to them”, Rooney reflects. “He is adamant that the women’s team are treated exactly the same as the men.”

image2 (1) Source: Michael O'Shea

Limerick local Curtin says that being given the opportunity to ply their trade at the historic, newly-renovated Markets Field is just one example of the positive steps the club are taking to give an equal opportunity to the new team.

“It really is nice that they’ve done this for the girls. It means a lot,” she says. “I’ve come through the international squads with the Irish set-up and stopped playing right before a time when there was a lot said about women’s soccer in this country.

I experienced all of that myself and I know that there wasn’t even respect given to the women’s game. Things are changing and it’s lovely to see the treatment we are getting now, because it means a lot to the players who give the same kind of commitment the men’s teams would. It’s absolutely brilliant to see.

“I started playing in the Limerick league when I was 10 or 11 years old,” adds captain Hartley. “We have been waiting for this for a long time, Marie’s the same — she’s been waiting the guts of 20 years for this too.

“When an opportunity like this knocks on your door it would be hard to turn it down. We have Cork this Sunday and we’ll go out and aim to compete.

“You can only play what’s put in front of you and it’s really just one match at a time for us because it’s our first season as a team together.

“Obviously it’s going to be tough playing against your Shelbourne’s and UCDs and Wexford’s and Peamount’s, but that’s all a part of the learning curve which we’re on this year.”

“From day one none of our players are getting paid,” Rooney says as we finish up.

“In fact they’re actually paying to play in terms of membership and stuff like that. There are no professional players getting paid a cent here; they are all simply doing it for that love of the game.”

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