The women’s game in Ireland should never be the same again. I say “should” because we could find ourselves treading water if the opportunity for growth borne out of 2022 is not grabbed with both hands and acted upon.
For decades, women’s football in Ireland was played down on the back pitch with the second-hand balls. The pitch with the long grass and wobbly lines that no one could really see. In truth, no one really wanted to see what was going on down there. And, to many, it didn’t really matter.
There was no toilet down there so the bottle of water for hydration would go largely untouched until after the game. Lads can find a bush and quickly relieve themselves; it’s not so straightforward for girls.
There was invariably a wall beside the back pitch which was used as a shield to stop the people from the houses nearby being able to see the girls as they changed into their hand-me-down jerseys. Getting the jersey over your head, then manoeuvring your arms out of the sleeves of the top you are wearing to pull the jersey down under the collar, then working your arms into the sleeves of your jersey (but, crucially, not back into the sleeves of your own top), before pulling the jersey down over your chest, and then finally, you could take your own top off safe from exposure to your male coaches or blushes in front of your team-mates.
I can’t remember when or how I learned to do that, but I guarantee you, every woman and girl who has played sport will know how to do it. Unless they had the luxury of actual toilets to change in.
All the while, up on the good pitches, Irish football was doing its thing until one day the Republic of Ireland women’s team asked for their own tracksuits. Some of them had been playing in England where they had dressing rooms, their own brand-new training and match gear and proper training facilities. They wondered why the lads, who were earning extremely good money at their clubs, were getting paid to represent their country, yet the girls in green often had to do so at their own expense.
It had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The next generation of women players could only see what had gone before and, unless they accepted the back pitches, they had no chance of getting into the game. The problem was, in order to get to the back pitch, you had to walk past the good pitches.
You had to know and see that you were only ever worthy of playing down on the back pitch.
Up on the good pitches, this level of discrimination didn’t matter because it was “normal”. Only a handful ever wrote about it, no one knew who these players were, and no one really cared. Out of sight, out of mind. Despite it all, some people kept turning up for those games down on the back pitches. They did matter.
In 2017, at Liberty Hall, the Republic of Ireland women’s national team stood together and said they deserved better. They didn’t want thousands of euros every week, just the chance to reach their potential. They wanted to be freed from the chains that kept them on the back pitch. They had the courage to step forward, to risk failing, open themselves to being judged, all because they believed they could do more and be better.
Failure and the judgment came in the qualifying campaign for the 2022 European Championships in England. But there had been progress, and the starting point for the 2023 World Cup qualifying campaign was higher than it had ever been before.
Players were getting more training hours, better resources and better exposure to the small margins that can sway big games. They were learning and growing and coming out of their comfort zones. Across the country it was having an effect at grassroots level, too, and by the time the qualifiers started, a plethora of exciting new players were breaking through to the WNL teams and a bigger pool of Irish talent was emerging.
The 1-0 win away in Scotland was a seminal moment. Amber Barrett’s goal and Courtney Brosnan’s penalty save will be forever etched in Irish football history
All of a sudden, people were interested, and a value started to be placed on the potential. Sponsors, media, administrators. There was a new investment of caring and it made a difference.
The new qualifying campaign began with a 1-0 home defeat to world number two side Sweden. The gap had narrowed, and the players knew it. A 2-1 away win over the group second seeds, Finland, proved it. A snatched, edgy 1-1 draw at home to Slovakia kept all the feet on the ground. The fluid 11-0 home win against Georgia set a new record and a heightened bar of belief. The 1-1 draw away to Sweden cemented that. The 9-0 away win in Georgia was a welcome breather which kept the momentum going. The scrappy 1-0 home win over Finland secured a playoff place. The 1-0 win away to Slovakia secured a top-ranked playoff place.
The 1-0 win away in Scotland was a seminal moment. Amber Barrett’s goal and Courtney Brosnan’s penalty save will be forever etched in Irish football history. The Republic of Ireland women’s national team are going to the World Cup.
Katie McCabe, Denise O’Sullivan, Louise Quinn, Heather Payne, Niamh Fahey, Aine O’Gorman et al are now known by the next generation. Vera Pauw’s team of players and staff who will travel to Australia and New Zealand next summer will show a generation of Irish footballers, match officials, coaches, administrators, policymakers, media, sponsors and decision-makers something they have never seen before.
The expectations will change.
The question now is: Who should play on the back pitch?
Having the strength to say “No” to something that is not good enough for the women’s or girls’ teams in any organisation or club is not easy. It’s time for the women’s game to put a value on itself.
If you cut the grass, add facilities, mark straight lines, organise good equipment and create a new entrance, you can have good pitches for everyone.
If things don’t change, they stay the same. Ireland will never get a better opportunity to drive that change.