Amid the small battles for points and qualifications, Dave Connell can still stand back and admire the big picture.
“I remember going into the AUL complex 11 years ago when I started working in the women’s game and there were wolf whistles and so forth from the lads. Now you walk into the AUL complex, there’s probably more girls playing up there than boys.”
The head of women’s underage development for the FAI will watch the seniors play Norway today energised by the lift Colin Bell’s team has given the game here.
“The senior team got its biggest crowd for the Dutch game. If we can get more of those people into Women’s National League games, that’ll be an added bonus.
“Ideally, in a couple of years’ time you’d like to think our Women’s National League would be looking at going semi-professional and then hopefully in years to come maybe even fully pro. But we are a little bit away from that.”
The former Bohemians, Shamrock Rovers, and Dundalk right-back oversees the FAI’s centres of excellence around the country, as well as managing the Ireland U19 side.
He believes we are almost in a place where girls are free to fall in love with a game that can offer them a future.
“In the past, there has been a lack of structure from 16 up. That’s been addressed this year with the introduction of the U17 National League and then the Women’s National League is in its sixth year now.
“And a big stumbling block has been education. Girls are a lot more conscientious in terms of education. There aren’t a lot of, if any, multi-million euro contracts knocking around in soccer (for girls) so it’s very important for them to get a good education.
“But there’s nothing stopping them now from doing both. We have girls now doing scholarships in America and in Ireland. The likes of Carlow IT has a lot of Women’s National League players. Another avenue for girls is coaching. We’ve a couple of National League players who do that, Rianna Jarrett from Wexford and Keara Cormican who plays with Galway.
“We’re trying to attract current and ex-players into coaching the girls. You’ll have a good career if you knuckle down and work hard at the coaching badges. There are a lot more opportunities but there’s certainly a lot more that can be done.”
He’d love all our best players’ futures to be at home but he also knows there’s a battle on at home for hearts and minds.
“What you find with the girls is if they are good at soccer, they are usually good at football or camogie or basketball or hockey.
“The structures getting better is a big help to us. We’re finding a lot of players that might have gone to other sport in the last few years, we’re not seeing as much of that now. And the key to that has probably been the Women’s National League.”
Amber Barrett, Ireland’s match-winner against Slovakia, packed up playing Gaelic with Donegal last year to concentrate on soccer and it sounds like Irish girls will soon be asked to make those kinds of decisions sooner.
“We don’t have a rule. It’s basically, if there’s a girl playing dual sports, they have to make that decision what they want to do. Gaelic football, camogie, soccer, they’re completely different games. I think it’s very difficult to play them at the same time at an elite level.
“We know a lot of girls play Gaelic games at a certain time of year and that’s fine if that’s what they want. I don’t have a written law. But I think if you’re going to be an elite player and play at international level, you play at international level and that’s it. But if someone wants to go in another direction we don’t stand in anyone’s way.”
Connell doesn’t shy away from grappling with Ireland’s footballing DNA. He admired the Netherlands’ dominance of the ball against Ireland and his own U19s recently endured a stark lesson in possession football from European champions Spain.
“Across Europe, everyone knows the Irish girls are tough to play against. But technically over the last 10 years, they’ve got a lot better. “We are not there yet, there’s a long way to go. But more time with the girls has helped. It’s been a trait in Irish football for a long time, I think it’s a big problem across the men’s and women’s game. We’re very good at winning the ball back but it’s actually keeping the ball that we’re weaker at. It’s certainly something we work on at the centres of excellence. And there are some special players on the way through if we can get these players to perform at the highest level.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved