In Ireland, commitment, passion and progress, but still no pay for elite female footballers

The Women’s National League kicks off this weekend, and the fight for semi-professional status remains a big talking point.

WNL Feature

IF YOU were to ask the average person for their sporting highlight of 2021, they wouldn’t be short of options.

They might pick one of Ireland’s triumphs at the Olympics or Paralympics for example, or something Euros-related.

The obvious choice would not be the culmination of the 2021 Women’s National League season, however, it was arguably as exciting and dramatic as anything in the world of sport last year despite going somewhat under the radar.

Peamount went into the last game knowing a victory would guarantee them a third successive title.

There was nothing out of the ordinary initially against a Galway side who would finish fifth regardless and so ostensibly had nothing other than pride to play for.

Goals from the division’s top scorer Áine O’Gorman and Tiegan Ruddy put the hosts firmly in control, as they looked destined to secure another league triumph.

However, drama ensued, as Galway hit back with five unanswered goals to leave their opponents stunned.

That result, coupled with Shelbourne’s 3-2 win over third-place Wexford Youths, enabled Noel King’s side to claim an unlikely title success.

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It is hard to recall many league climaxes as thrilling at any level in recent years and the impressive spectacle helped bolster a division whose reputation appears to be growing.

The fact that the game was televised by TG4 was a rarity in itself, as women’s domestic matches are rarely broadcast, with the exception of the FAI Cup final, which has been regularly shown by RTÉ in recent years.

Nonetheless, while considerable strides have been made, Irish female players still have a long way to go — even matching their male counterparts in the League of Ireland, an environment that in itself is far from perfect, remains far off.

The FAI’s strategic plan, revealed last month, contained several ambitious targets for the women’s game to be met by 2025. They included a second tier for the Women’s National League, a sold-out Tallaght Stadium hosting the FAI Cup final, a minimum of 75% attendance at senior international matches and a peak TV audience on RTÉ to exceed 750,000 for national team games that are shown.

Speaking to several prominent figures at the WNL launch recently, there was a sense of optimism at the progress that has been made of late coupled with an awareness as to the importance of building on these encouraging steps.

aine-ogorman Ireland international Áine O'Gorman was previously critical of the WNL's 'pay-to-play' culture. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland international Áine O’Gorman last year spoke of her delight that the ‘pay to play’ policy was no longer an issue thanks to greater sponsorship backing.

Nevertheless, it is still an amateur league, with the vast majority of those involved either in college (or in the cases of talented teenagers like Ellen Molloy, school) or combining football with a full-time job.

One such person is Tommy Hewitt, the current manager of Athlone, who finished seventh last year and picked up 19 points in what was just their second season competing in the WNL.

A former player with the Athlone men’s team, he had to retire in his early 20s due to injury. Since doing his coaching badges, he had a stint as assistant boss of the men’s team and a few years coaching at Gaynor Cup-level before undertaking his present role.

Hewitt also spent 21 years in the military and now works as a postman, which allows him the flexibility needed to manage at WNL level.

While acknowledging the league has come a long way in a relatively short space of time, he also emphasises the changes that still must be implemented.

“I’ve always had a keen interest in the women’s side of it,” he tells The42. “I would have watched the league over the last number of years. It’s 11 years since the Women’s National League was established. From where it was to now is just chalk and cheese.

“But there is loads of room for improvement. I think the next step should be looking at semi-professional to keep our best players in the country and also to reward the girls that are putting in a huge effort at the moment to make the league better.

“I suppose the better the players, the wider the audience and the more attraction it’s going to create. These players have been nothing but fantastic. I can only speak for my own players over the last number of years, the commitment and dedication, what they give up and sacrifice — everybody does that, but to not get paid for it is beyond belief.

“I know the FAI and Mark Scanlon and these guys have probably gone down that road, looking at this and seeing is it viable. I think it definitely will [be]. If we want to keep our best players here and also to give the international managers the best chance, [we have to ensure] our players can be nearly full-time and they don’t have to go [away] to play full-time and for our national team to get into major tournaments.

“I saw the strategy that came out from the FAI, and they’re talking about a second tier in the women’s division from 2025. But in order for that to be achievable, your main division has to be sustainable and it has to have the best players in it.”

Still, players are being attracted by the potential of women’s football. For instance, Ireland international Saoirse Noonan, who was Shelbourne’s top scorer in 2021, previously combined football with her Cork GAA commitments, but the 22-year-old attacker last year made the decision to concentrate solely on the former.

laurie-ryan Laurie Ryan previously played for Clare footballers and made an All-Ireland Intermediate final appearance at Croke Park in 2016. Gary Carr / INPHO Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

Like many others, Athlone player Laurie Ryan fell away from the sport as a teenager, despite having attended Irish trials and shown considerable promise.

“My focus went to Gaelic football and that lasted until I was 26. I was in and out of my club team whenever I didn’t have Gaelic football. Eventually, I got a job in Athlone and a girl at my home club recommended that I go for trials with Athlone. We were in the middle of the lockdown with Covid. There was no Gaelic football and I hadn’t planned on going home to play. So I just went in for the trials last year and here I am now.

“It’s a bit of a whirlwind for me, how I got back into playing and playing at this level. But I had been playing at a high level in Gaelic football, so in terms of fitness, I wasn’t too far off the pace, it was more my skills and stuff that I had to work on initially.”

Ryan has noticed a major difference in standard compared to when she played initially.

“Even the pace of the game, how strong young girls are coming through and the development that’s there for them, there is a national U17s, U19s and a senior league, none of that was around when I was younger. So if you have the ambitions to push on, you have all the tools available to do it, that’s massive for the sport in general. If it wants to push on, it needs to have those roots there for people to look forward to and get involved in.”

The Ennis native balances playing for Athlone with life as a PhD student in the Technological University of the Shannon, where she lectures in her area of interest – scientific argumentation.

“It’s basically just about getting students debating in science classes in secondary school. So I’m originally qualified as a secondary school science teacher. Then I stayed in study and I nearly finished the write-up phase of it. But I’m lecturing full-time now, which makes it harder.

“My diary is jam-packed and I try to plan about a month in advance, but it’s definitely manageable and that’s one thing I try to pass down to the younger girls that might be doing exams. If you just plan your time well and organise yourself, you can fit everything in if you really need to.”

julie-ann-russell Galway United WFC’s Julie-Ann Russell recently returned to the WNL after a spell in Australia. Tom Maher / INPHO Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

Another individual who has come back to the WNL after a period away is Ireland international Julie-Ann Russell. She spent the second half of last season with Galway, and will again represent her hometown club in the year ahead.

She previously had stints with Peamount and DLR Waves, before moving to Australia where she spent over four years working for Microsoft and also lined out for both Sydney University and Western Sydney Wanderers.

“I recently got married there at Christmas,” she says. “I suppose it’s just a bit too far away. I came home for family reasons. But it was amazing just to continue playing football. I was playing professionally over in Australia. But being able to come [back] and play with my hometown, which I never [did before], is amazing.”

And Russell believes the league is in a better place now compared to when she left it previously.

“It’s definitely improved since those days over the last couple of years, even in terms of coverage and stuff. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s great to be seeing it improve year on year. It’s great to see a lot of young talent come through. Then also seeing a lot of girls move abroad as well.”

She continues: “I think it would be great for the men and women’s leagues to be televised more. When we do get the opportunity to be televised, I believe the stats are very good in terms of viewership and what they’ve done in the UK, how much they’ve grown the women’s league, that’s something we could replicate here.”

While every player associated with the league is involved in promoting it to a degree, some have more of a direct influence than others.

Shelbourne’s Pearl Slattery, for instance, works for the FAI as the women’s football coordinator.

“I develop a lot of the programmes for clubs and leagues around the country to grow participation and retain players, so look I’m very lucky,” she explains.

“The last few years I’ve probably said ‘this is my last year’ [as a player]. I’m 32 now. But I feel great, I’m going to keep playing as long as I can.

“With the development of the league, TG4 coming in, how competitive the league is getting, with players in and around your age group, it makes you want to play as long as you can. There’s such enjoyment in it. Great promotion. The league is getting better and better. So it’s very hard to step away.

“There’s a strategy in place now. There’s a key pillar there that’s directed towards women’s football so we just have to make sure what’s put down we follow through and I think we will. [FAI CEO] Jonathan Hill is a big fan of women’s football. I’ve met him a few times. He’s been a breath of fresh air, to be honest. I just think as a whole, the association [should] continue the way it’s going.”

kylie-murphy Wexford Youths' Kylie Murphy is hopeful the WNL will continue to go from strength to strength. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Like Slattery, Wexford Youths’ Kylie Murphy is one of the most experienced footballers in the league. Last year’s WNL Player of the Year has been involved in the competition since its inaugural 2011-12 campaign and has witnessed plenty of ups and downs in the 11 intervening years.

“I think it’s pretty much going in the right direction,” she says. “In the last year or two, there have been huge strides in the women’s game. I think we need to just keep pushing. Where we’ve got to now is incredible, we just cannot stand still. We have to keep going, keep pushing.  

“It’s great looking round at the media days now, how much they’ve changed from the first year I was there, it’s just incredible. But we can’t stop. What would be the point in all the pushing and all the coverage in trying to get it out there if we just stop here?

“We have to keep driving it forward and it’s for the next generation is why we need to work so hard, push the media, push the advertising, try to get sponsors in, really try to grow the game, try to keep the best players in Ireland. And I suppose to turn the leagues into semi-professional or professional, look after the players as best we can, the way the men are. We need to start trying to do that in Ireland because at the moment, the players are so good, but we’re losing them and it’s devaluing the league and how good it is. 

“Not to be complaining, but there were so many hopes and aspirations at the start that the Women’s National League was going to be this, that and the other. It started off well, then it took a dip and it kind of stopped and there was no progression. But in the last two years, it has come on leaps and bounds. And that’s why I’m so focused on the point that we can’t stop because maybe that happened 10 years ago. There was going to be this [great] league and it never happened.”

While seven out of 27 players in the most recent Ireland squad were WNL-based, with a few notable exceptions, footballers who ply their trade abroad have largely been preferred when it comes to crunch qualifiers and Murphy understands why this has been the case.

“I think Vera wants her squad as full-time professionals, which is completely understandable. You’ve a girl working a 40-hour week and training national league and playing matches [compared with a player whose] job is to play soccer, you’re going to reap the rewards out of the player that’s a full-time professional. 

“My thing is: ‘Can we get to a stage that we don’t have to leave the Women’s National League?’ Can we get to a stage that she’s a full-time professional, she’s an international, but we have her here, she’s part of this league and can grow the Women’s National League, not just use it as a stepping stone across the water.

“I sit down and watch the WSL over in England, but maybe can we have people watching the league over here? I know what I’m talking about is 5-10 years on from now. But is that what we need to be looking towards? Is that where we can get to? You see TG4 showing four games last year, maybe can we show every game next year? The same with RTÉ, they showed the cup final, can they show the whole run-up to the final? Things like that are really important.”

One man who will have a significant influence on proceedings in the coming years is Mark Scanlon, who has been the League of Ireland Director since his appointment in July 2020. 

Unifying the various levels of Irish football has long been a key goal for Scanlon and co.

“The National Leagues Committee has been set up over the last few months. That’s a new entity that has brought forward the men’s and women’s leagues together under one committee. That’s something we’ve been ambitious with and really strong on since I’ve come into the role and the league department has been set up — the men’s, women’s and underage leagues will all come under that League of Ireland banner and we want to drive top-level football forward in this country.

“That’s the strength of the brand of our league, people are really starting to buy into the whole community aspect — the women’s clubs, the underage clubs and the sections that are involved. In the past, league clubs would have been traditionally a men’s team in a men’s senior division. We’re seeing much bigger and wider aspects to what the clubs do now and that can only be a positive.”

mark-scanlon League of Ireland Director Mark Scanlon says the WNL must be cautious in its quest for semi-professional status. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

And when asked whether he believes the much-discussed aim of semi-professional status for the WNL is close, Scanlon responds: “That’s certainly a goal and ambition of both ours and the clubs. But ultimately what we’re looking to do is make sure that the foundations are laid out first.

“What we don’t want to do is have an unsustainable product in the first place where semi-professionalism is there and player wages are being paid without the actual backup for the clubs to be well structured.

“One of the things that we’ve embarked on over the last 18 months is to ensure a licensing process is in place, similar to how the men’s leagues are run. That’s gone really well in the pilot year that we had. We’ll continue to develop that this year and a formal process will be introduced next year.

“As we increase the professionalism of the league off the pitch that will then, in turn, lead to the professionalism on the pitch as well. So hopefully, that’s something we’ll achieve.”

The Women’s National League season gets underway this weekend. Every game is available to watch for FREE via LOITV and you can view the fixture list here.

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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