Emma Byrne: 'Women footballers need education whereas men don’t'

'For me, it’s not about Irish players going professional. I wouldn’t even encourage it. I’d prefer for them to get their degree.'
Emma Byrne: 'Women footballers need education whereas men don’t'

GUNNERS: Arsenal legend Ian Wright and former Republic of Ireland Women's National Team captain Emma Byrne at Temple Bar Gallery & Studios in Dublin, during the launch of Cadbury's brand-new initiative to help support Irish women's grassroots football, 'The Game is On'. As the grassroots season gets underway, Cadbury have teamed up with ten clubs nationwide to help them promote their club on a local level with the creation of uniquely designed posters. Cadbury have created the 'The Game is On' initiative to ensure grassroots women's teams get the visibility they deserve, with the aim of driving more interest in their clubs. For more information see https://womensfootball.cadbury.ie Pic: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

She’s etched in history as the change-agent for the Irish women’s game but Emma Byrne isn’t finished with striving for better.

And, even more interestingly, it’s not the solution many would presume.

You’d find it difficult to source a figurehead across the women’s game without a professional league as the centrepiece of their wishlist.

Ex-Arsenal goalkeeper Byrne – part of the only English team to win the Champions League in 2007 and Ireland’s record-caps holder – feels investment would yield superior benefits by fusing football with studies through a centralised scheme.

Her rationale for deviating from the obvious allure of undivided football stems from what’s she experienced.

Moreover, she still considers the gap to the men’s industry prevalent despite the growing profile of the game, highlighted by the recent Euros.

“Women footballers need education whereas men don’t,” asserted Byrne.

“I would still recommend men do too but they earn enough money to retire. Women always have to take a second career.

“For me, it’s not about Irish players going professional. I wouldn’t even encourage it. I’d prefer for them to get their degree.” 

Her “scholarship” concept isn’t alien, for Byrne correctly cites the foundation the Scottish FA embedded to develop a squad that reached the Euros and World Cup in the past five years.

The establishment of the women’s Academy based at Stirling University in 2009 was visionary, as her Scottish teammates at Arsenal, such as Kim Little, weren’t shy about championing.

It was 2017 when Byrne led the charge to attain proper treatment for the national team by embarking on a strike they felt unavoidable.

She’s no longer inside the camp and isn’t going nuclear on the FAI at a time the senior team are on the brink of a first-ever World Cup playoff but is pleading for action. Longevity of success demands it.

“I’d have the Academy for players between the ages of 16 and 22, linking it to a good college where they can study what they want, not just a specific subject,” she explained.

“They play football and you’re forcing them to go to college because some of the players don’t want to study.

“Just wanting to play professional football is a shame because when they come into their 30s to retire, it’s difficult time with no education.

“Not only are you improving the national team – and you will because that happened when Scotland introduced this and surpassed us – you’re helping a player’s confidence and rounding them as people with education. They become better players too, so it’s a win-win.

“Education, for me, is the number one priority. University is a great draw and certainly something that parents will push them into.” 

That’s all good and well but what about the ultimate destination?

Those 22-year-old graduates, were they not to stay at home to pursue a twin-track career like Dora Gorman and Ciara Grant did with medicine, have a route into full-time football.

In an expansion of Byrne’s radical thinking, that’s not necessarily in Ireland.

“I thought about someone taking over an English women’s team and bringing in lots of Irish players,” Byrne says with a grin, recalling the greening of Arsenal with herself, Ciara Grant (different player to the doctor), Yvonne Tracy and Niamh Fahey.

“I’ve often thought of stuff like that. We naturally draw Irish players in. Liam Brady brought all of us Irish to Arsenal. We would have signed more in but we couldn’t get some girls over because they wanted to study at University.” 

Byrne has the credentials for the Government and FAI to take notice but it will probably take Vera Pauw guiding Ireland deep into the playoffs for the groundswell to prompt action.

She’s convinced they’ll seal their pathway by beating Finland on September 1 at a sold-out Tallaght Stadium and isn’t averse to the consequential playoff in October being switched to Aviva Stadium.

“If a big qualifier came up, I think moving to the Aviva would a be fantastic experience for the girls. It’s a work-in-progress.” 

Her fellow guest of Cadbury in Dublin on Thursday, Ian Wright, concurred.

“Ireland have to concentrate on Finland – and then they’ll be three games away from World Cup qualification,” said another Gunners legend.

“It’s amazing from where Ireland five years ago to where they are now.” 

The chief agitator for that revolution knows there’s much road to travel yet.

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