Olivia O’Toole: ‘The bed sheets were covered in blood and I slept in my clothes’

Olivia O’Toole was part of the Republic of Ireland senior women’s team between 1991 and 2009. Winning more than 130 caps, she remains the team’s record goalscorer having netted 54 times. Born and bred in Dublin’s north inner-city, she remains embedded in the local community and works as a recreation officer with Dublin City Council.

Olivia O’Toole: ‘The bed sheets were covered in blood and I slept in my clothes’

Q: How did you become obsessed with football?

A: My father got me into it. He sat me down one day. I had lemonade, he had a few drinks, we had popcorn and we watched Match of the Day. I was four-years-old and George Best was playing. It was about 1973. My Da has passed away now but I still do that. I go out all day on Saturday but make a point of not knowing any of the scores because I’ll watch Match of the Day that night.

Q: Dublin’s inner-city was an unforgiving environment in the 1980s. Growing up, was football your escape from everything else?

A: If I hadn’t got into football, I’d have got into drugs. Heroin was only hitting and a number of my friends went in that direction but I didn’t. They were around the corner drinking bottles of cider or cans of Harp and I was around another corner with a ball and a wall. That was my way of getting away from it. Drugs hit my family as well. I saw too many people dying from it and I had the willpower to go the right way about it. Football was my addiction. I slept it, ate it and drank it.

Q: How did you get your breakthrough with Ireland?

A: I was playing with the boys for around six years – until I was 15 – and there was a game in the Phoenix Park one day. I went up for a ball and busted a fella’s nose. And that’s when they noticed I was a girl. They didn’t know until then. And The Evening Herald came down to take pictures! I was asked if I’d play for Drumcondra Ladies – the seniors. It was a bit daunting because I didn’t know anybody but I quickly understood it was what I wanted in life. It was my calling. I made by senior Irish debut in a European qualifier against Spain in Seville in 1991 and scored the winner.

Q: How did you feel when the senior women’s team outlined their grievances with the FAI earlier this week?

A: I got goosebumps. I could see exactly where Emma (Byrne) was coming from in the press conference. I played alongside her for close to 15 years. We’ve seen everything. We used to sit down and talk and say, ‘This is fucking disgraceful, what can we do about it?’ But the impression we got was that if you spoke up you’d be banished from the team. There were plenty of times when I, and another few girls, did speak up and we were basically told to sit down and shut up. ‘There’s nothing we can do about it, there’s no money’.

Q: What were the working conditions like when you were involved?

A: One time, we were staying in a hotel in Minsk - I thought it was a brothel. The bed sheets were covered in blood and I slept in my clothes. The toilets were manky. You know the pole that’s attached to a shower head? Well, that was the actual shower. But we were told, ‘It doesn’t matter what facilities you’re in, all you have to do is train and play your football – we’ll look after the rest’. But they didn’t look after the rest.

I swapped jerseys with a player once and got reprimanded. ‘What are you doing, Livvy? We can’t afford to be getting more jerseys’. I was gobsmacked. I used to swap it anyway because you could never ask the girl to give it back. Whoever was there with us from the FAI would say, ‘Now, don’t swap jerseys because you won’t be getting a second one’.

We had problems with travel and hotels. It could take us 10 hours to get to a country that’s only a short flight from Dublin but because they wanted to do it cheap you’d have to do a roundtrip. We’d always get the earliest flight out of Dublin at 6.30am. If we were in Russia, we’d get off a plane and then travel for nine hours on a bus. It’s just cheap-skating.

Q: Were the issues brought to the attention of management and the FAI?

A: We had no representation except for the captain and I was the captain for 10 years. The girls came to me with their problems. I went to the management and it went in one ear and out the other. We were never listened to. We had no say. We were delighted with the 30 euro we got each day but it was still a joke. I was taking annual leave from work but my average pay at the time was 90 euro a day. We thought they were going to build on 30 euro. But they didn’t. And they took that money away from the girls last year so they got nothing again.

Q: How much have those issues contributed to the senior team never managing to qualify for a major tournament?

A: For the 2007 World Cup qualifiers, we had made the step up. We’d been promoted to one of the elite teams and could qualify directly for the tournament. It was the furthest we had ever been but everything has stayed in the same spot since. Maybe it’s actually gone backwards. It’s the usual shite – ‘We nearly got there’. It’s always ‘nearly’. The FAI have never built on anything. The people there now are content with us going into qualifiers, getting beaten and doing it all over again. 360 degrees – just going around and around. If they pumped money into the women’s game, we’d be a force to be reckoned with because we have the talent and the quality.

For our games, we’d get around 200 people in Richmond Park sometimes and that was mostly family members. They used to hand us the posters two days beforehand. I’d say, ‘Why are you giving us these now? We can’t do anything with them’. It was mind-boggling. They’d bring in journalists the day before a game. That was the publicity. If you’re going to do it right, you get the posters ready two or three months before, you arrange proper interviews. But they never did anything like that. They never promoted the game. And that’s why we never got anybody at them. Then we’d go to Spain and everybody – from a baby in a pram to a 70-year-old granny – had a flag in their hands.

Q: How did you juggle work commitments?

A: I was fortunate. I had an employer who could see where I was coming from and we agreed that if I was away for four days, they’d pay me for two. If I was gone for five days, I’d be paid for three. It was a compromise. But some of the girls in the team would be saying to me, ‘I’m missing out on four days pay here – is it worth it?’ I used to tell them, ‘Just wait until you’re standing there and singing your national anthem – it’ll be worth it then’. Because there’s no other feeling in the world like it and I’d try to get that across to them. But some were losing out on 400 euro and not seeing a penny back. The thanks you got for playing for your country was a kick in the face.

Q: Will this new agreement lead to significant changes in working conditions for Ireland’s female footballers?

A: I’d like to think they’ll push on. If the agreement is to the girls’ satisfaction, they’re obviously happy with the terms. So in that sense it’s brilliant. But on the other hand, if it stays this way, it’s just a PR stunt by the FAI. I’ve seen them promise the moon and the stars and then nothing happens.

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