Ireland women’s team fighting for a brighter future

We can’t forget that the country that gave football to the world took football away from women, writes Larry Ryan.
Ireland women’s team fighting for a brighter future

What a week for women in sport. Amid various legal challenges and threats to strike, the USA ice hockey team and the USA and Ireland soccer teams all won better conditions.

And after his own threat to strike, Moyesy made it clear his was an equal opportunity offer. That he would slap anyone, man or woman, and he would have the bantz with anybody too.

Even a woman.

With this startling momentum building, what the ladies needed was a big thinker and sure enough, Peter Alliss reliably came forward, developing these loose ideas about slapping women into the cohesive plan that can take the equality drive decisively forward.

“If we want to be equal, are you going to get a woman fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world in boxing? Are you? Could you?”

Imaginative work from the British TV licence payer-funded ideas man, who in his tireless efforts to improve women’s conditions last year suggested they should marry members of Muirfield rather than pester their way into the club.

That might make a fine plot for the remake of Green Card. But as an appetiser, and while we wait for Katie Taylor to bulk up and step up for equality, Hollywood will soon treat us to Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, the story of the 1973 tennis match between world number one Billie Jean King and retired player and bantz enthusiast Bobby Riggs.

Yes, the lads have been coming up with this brainwave for some time. Martina Navratilova lost to Jimmy Connors in 1992, and in 2000 another great golfing ideas man offered a $1m prize for a match between either of the Williams sisters and John McEnroe at his Trump Taj Mahal casino.

If Billie Jean felt obliged to beat and shut up Riggs, just to move things forward an inch or two, she can take some of the credit for putting Venus in a comfortable position to return serve: “I don’t know if I could fit him in my schedule right now. I don’t think it’s fair to put a 20-year-old against a 40-something. So, I’ll let that pass.”

But it is a curiously enduring theme. Even as we spend much of our time fretting about the state of men’s sport; the rampant commercialism, the endemic cynicism, the tenuous loyalties, the prizing of athleticism over genius, the shutting out of fans and media, the structures, the controvassy, the poor standards of bantz; we can swiftly turn on a sixpence and discount women’s sport because it is not like the men’s game.

As Jess Mendoza, ESPN’s first female Major League Baseball analyst put it recently: “There’s always the ‘what you’re not’.”

The ‘what you’re not’ is, of course, an integral part of sport. After winning everything during a magnificent career with Arsenal, Emma Byrne found herself playing for a manager who wanted a goalkeeper more comfortable passing out from the back. So she was soon on her way to Brighton.

But when we encounter this appetite to bake in ‘what you’re not’ on the day you are born, we might recall that the male establishment wasn’t always so confident about taking on the women’s game.

We can’t forget that the country that gave football to the world took football away from women.

The appeal of women’s football during and after World War I might have some asterisks attached, chiefly the lack of men’s football since all the lads were away getting killed.

But it was appealing enough that Winston Churchill — as Secretary of State For War —approved one of Britain’s first floodlit games, when the brown leather ball was whitewashed and two anti-aircraft spotlights lit up Preston North End’s Deepdale.

It was appealing enough to draw 53,000 to Goodison Park and for the great star of the age — Lily Parr of Dick, Kerr Ladies FC — to be paid 10 shillings a game (around €150 today) plus her travelling expenses.

And it was appealing enough that the FA shut it down once men’s football resumed, banning women from playing on the pitches of its affiliated clubs, citing touching concern for their health.

Maybe it had become too like the men’s game.

As women returned, after WWI, to the right and proper places the likes of Alliss would approve of, that FA ban wasn’t lifted for 50 years, until women’s national football associations began to emerge around the world. In the same year that King beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, the Ladies Football Association of Ireland was formed.

So factoring in this small delay in the evolution of the women’s game, maybe it’s predictable that in terms of respect and compensation, Emma Byrne and her Ireland team-mates are only now getting to where John Giles and his team-mates were in the 60s. And that a woman like Vicki Sparks is still a noteworthy presence on post-match media duty.

Though you mightn’t have expected Byrne to be scrambling for what Lily Parr was getting nearly 100 years ago. Or togging out in an airport toilet.

Julie Foudy, whose 1999 USA World Cup-winning side did plenty to hasten the evolution of women’s football, tweeted her applause for the stand the Irish team took, with an eye too on the many battles to come.

“Note to Federations: Here is a 2017 thought! How about being proactive in supporting women rather than reactive. The game is for ALL.”

Foudy counselled the USA hockey and soccer players in their battles, but speaking on an ESPN Women Making History podcast, she expressed no interest in waging a heavyweight battle with the likes of Alliss.

“I don’t want to be treated like men’s sports. I don’t think we should aim for that. I love that women in general operate differently. We are accessible to the community in ways you sometimes don’t get with the professional men’s game. And I think that is what we should be pushing.”

But Foudy also nailed why Emma Byrne, so close to retirement, led Ireland’s fight this week. “There comes a time when the fight is no longer about what you endure but more about what the next generation should not have to endure.”

Kerry stop talking the talk

What is becoming of Kerry? Kieran Shannon wrote recently in these pages of the masterful dominance the Kingdom exerts among Gaelic football’s influencers; decades of success stocking all sections of the media with green and gold opinion. And yet we hear the plaintive appeal from down there this week that a media narrative which suits Dublin is forming and that it just isn’t fair.

Could it be painfully symbolic of the current Kerry team’s reluctance to go toe to toe with the Dubs on the field? That they are backing off a battle via the columns and studios and gantries too? That they are being out-pundited as well? It’s a sorry state of affairs and if they’re not careful, they’ll have to be regarded alongside that other county who are extremely well spoken for.

They’ll begin to sound like Mayo.

Mourinho’s mind games drawback

It has been a mercifully low-key Premier League season on the mind games front. But little did we know that the elite gaffers appear to be working on a more efficient use of their brain power.

After throwing his mind in for an effective 25-minute cameo for Manchester United on Tuesday night, Jose Mourinho played brief tribute to Luke Shaw, the hollow husk that hosted his genius.

“He used his body with my brain. He was in front of me and I was making every decision for him.”

No doubt Jose is working towards a full debut and eventually the capability to line out his brain in every position. And spring it from the bench as the need arises.

Though somewhere along the way he may twig that plan would leave him with nobody else to blame.

Heroes & Villains

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

Colm Cooper: Always went toe to toe. Have Kerry made the call to press him into emergency service as a pundit?

HELL IN A HANDCART

The easily outraged: Whatever about Noel King’s defence of the FAI, seems harsh to slate him for calling the women’s team ‘girls’ as nobody would say a thing like that about the ‘Boys in Green’.

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