From being banned from playing in the street leagues as a kid to captaining and managing her country, Sue Ronan has seen the landscape of the women’s game in Ireland change dramatically in her lifetime, but the FAI’s Head of Women’s Football tells Liam Mackey there are big challenges ahead.
It’s become a familiar post-match ritual for the Irish women’s senior team: Win, lose, or draw, the girls in green take as long as is necessary pitchside to satisfy the demands of excited young supporters eager to get a selfie with Puskas Award nominee Stephanie Roche, an autograph from rising star Leanne Kiernan, or the chance to take home one of veteran goalkeeper Emma Byrne’s gloves as a prized souvenir.
Sue Ronan, who recently stepped down as manager after six years in the hot seat to concentrate on her role as the FAI’s Head of Women’s Football, confesses that there were plenty of times when she’d be tearing her hair out in the dressing room after the final whistle waiting for her players to come in so they could hear her immediate thoughts on the game.
However, she also fully accepts that her short-term frustration was outweighed by the long-term gain of the charm offensive.
“Girls need role models in football,” she says. “Where are they going to see them, otherwise? We have to sell ourselves. They’re not in the paper or on TV most of the time. As a young girl, my role models were all men: Liam Brady, Malcolm Macdonald, all those guys. I didn’t know any female players. Even when I got called up to the national team, I hadn’t got a clue who was on it.”
Of course, that she might some day wear the green shirt herself was something she couldn’t even have dreamed of back in the 1970s when she first began kicking a ball in earnest in front of her family home in Crumlin.
“I remember from quite an early age standing at the gate watching boys playing football on the road and wanting to join them,” she recalls. “Eventually, I either plucked up the courage or they asked me, but I was always playing football on the street from then on. I was the only girl playing, but I was accepted by the guys and, it’s funny, but I remember that whenever a neighbour called the guards to complain that we were playing football on the street, the lads would all run and hide in the gardens when they saw the squad car coming. But I’d just stand there because I knew they’d never think I’d been playing.”
She reckons she was about 12 when she first came up against the glass ceiling, and it was crushing.
“There was a street league organised, but I wasn’t allowed play,” she remembers. “It wasn’t that the boys I played football with didn’t want me, it was either the opposition or the organisers who objected. Whatever the reason, I wasn’t allowed to play, but as far as I was concerned it was because I was a girl and girls weren’t supposed to play football. I just remember feeling awful. And it left something in the back of my mind. When you’re a child, you don’t think strategically, obviously, but, later on, I remember saying that I never wanted any other girl to feel like that again. I was called a tomboy, of course, and I’ve seen a lot of research since which shows that calling a girl a tomboy can have a huge psychological impact on them to the extent that it can turn them off sport.”
Happily, that wasn’t the case with Sue, who played hockey all through secondary school while maintaining her love of football through support for Arsenal — she’d initially been drawn to the Gunners by Highbury’s famous Dublin contingent of Brady, Stapleton and O’Leary – and as a regular at Ireland games.
“This was before the floodlights at Lansdowne Road and I remember my mum writing sick notes so I could get off school to go to the afternoon games,” she says. “I’d go with the boys from the street and I was always aware that I was one of the few girls or women at the matches back then.”
Meanwhile, she struggled to find an outlet for her own playing ambitions until her father, who’d played junior football at a high level, bumped into his friend Theo Dunne, father of Tommy, uncle of Richard and one of the city’s great football figures. It turned out that Theo was running a girls’ team called Cherrywood with whom he had two daughters playing. Sue took up the invitation to join the club and quickly emerged as a natural striker, her goalscoring prowess subsequently seeing her move on to play for Packard (a step up, since they had a couple of internationals in their ranks), Welsox and, finally, Shelbourne.
Called up to the Irish women’s team, which was then managed by Fran Rooney (later the FAI CEO), she made her international debut away to Sweden in 1988, an experience which, for a variety of reasons both on and off the pitch, she would not forget.
“I remember the shock at the level they were at compared to us, even though they only beat us 2-0,” she says. “I’ll never forget it, I could hardly breathe in the game. I was still a centre-forward then and I was just chasing shadows. I hardly touched the ball.
“Resources for our women’s team were so limited in those days. We trained in Fairview Park and barely had enough equipment for the training session. It wasn’t a roped-off pitch, we just rocked up and trained. The team was run by the WFAI at the time, not the FAI, and because of the few resources they had, Fran Rooney could only bring 13 players in the squad for the game in Sweden. We couldn’t bring a spare goalkeeper and, five minutes into the game, our goalkeeper got injured and an outfield player had to go in.
“We travelled on a Friday, played on a Saturday and came home on the Monday — and we all got food poisoning after the game. The Swedes gave us some kind of fish pie and I was the first to get ill and then, through that night and when we were travelling home the next day, it went through everybody. So, what a debut.”
Converted into a midfielder by Rooney’s successor Mick Cooke, Ronan went on to captain the Irish team, be named FAI International Player of the Year in 1993, and amass 22 caps before, with Cooke’s encouragement, she began her coaching career in 1996 as, firstly, assistant manager and then manager of the U19 side.
Then, in 2010, when Cooke’s successor Noel King became the men’s U21 manager, Sue was appointed boss of the senior women’s team, a role she filled for six years until stepping down in November. She is one of only two women — UCD Waves manager Eileen Gleeson being the other – to hold an elite Uefa Pro Licence coaching badge in this country.
Now, having swapped the dugout for the office, Sue finally has the time to fully adopt a big picture view of the women’s game in Ireland and work to maximise its potential from the grassroots up.
A significant issue to be addressed — and one that is common to all sports — is the recognised phenomenon of the big drop-off in participation by girls in their mid-teens.
“It’s a huge problem,” says Ronan. “Boys at that age all think they’re going to play for Man United. They all think they’re going to play for the Ireland team. They all think they’re going to get a professional contract in England. Even with professional football for women, the same opportunities are not there for girls. Also, the majority of girls are probably more into the studies at that age. We even have problems getting girls to training sessions or into elite programmes on a weekly basis, because they want to study for the Junior Cert or Leaving Cert. You don’t really see boys missing an ETP (Emerging Talent Programme) session or club training because of their studies.
“I think the body-conscious aspect comes into it more for girls at that age, too. Probably not at the elite end, but you definitely lose numbers because of that, I think. Then, there’s boyfriends. Girlfriends don’t stop boys playing sport, but boyfriends do stop girls playing sport. I don’t mean that they forbid them to, but it’s just the fact that it seems to be more of a distraction.”
Sexism persists in football but, she maintains, only to the extent that it’s a reflection of the prevailing culture.
“There are still some prehistoric attitudes, but you get that everywhere in life, unfortunately,” she observes. “Certainly, within the FAI there aren’t — women’s football is treated exactly the same as the rest of football. Obviously, there’s more money in the men’s game because, all around the world, it’s the men’s game which puts bums on seats. There’s sexism in every walk of life and you do still hear phrases in men’s football like ‘you’re playing like a girl’, but I think less and less of that is happening.
“One of the big problems we face is that women’s football is still compared with men’s football, but people need to realise that they’re different games. I always go back to tennis. Women’s tennis and men’s tennis are two different games and they’re both enjoyed in their own right. Nobody’s complaining that the women are not serving at 120 kilometres an hour or they’re not playing five sets or whatever, so people should look at women’s football for what it is and for the skills it brings and accept it for that, rather than saying it’s not at the same level as the men’s game. It’s never going to be the same level as the men’s game and, when I say they’re different games, I mean physically. That’s just a fact of life. Apart from that, they’re not.
“Compared to when I was starting out, the women’s game is more physical in its own right and, no more than the men’s game, it’s much faster now than it used to be. It has changed beyond recognition. I’d dread to look back at videos of my own games for the national team,because I’d imagine they’d be like chalk and cheese compared to now. But while the game’s been changing here, it’s been changing all over the world too. The countries that have the big budgets, big resources and the bigger pool of players, they’re the ones that have had success, so while we’ve done some great things, we’re still playing catch-up.”
It’s certainly true that the landscape of girls’ and women’s football has changed dramatically in Ireland in the lifetime of the now 52-year-old Ronan. From the growth in the number of girls’ teams affiliated to clubs, in tandem with the FAI’s popular ‘Soccer Sisters’ programme for youngsters, all the way up to the National Women’s League, and from the underage international squads through to the senior team, there are now far more opportunities for girls to participate in the sport and, if they have the skills and ambition, to maximise their talents and develop into elite players.
“The overarching goal is that football is accessible for every girl who wants to play it, no matter where she lives, no matter her ability or no matter her age,” says Ronan. “I think we’re doing that. The new player development plan allows girls to play with boys for longer; it was 12 and it’s right up to 16 now.
“Times have changed and people are more accepting of something like that now. It’s not going to happen on every team, but you might get an elite girl in an area where girls’ football is not giving her elite competition but the boys’ football will and she could also play a year down, say, as a 16-year-old with a U15 boys team. I don’t think we’re going to see it happen a lot, but at least the opportunity is there for any girl that wants to and is capable of it. It’s been the case in a lot of European countries for a long time, especially in Scandinavian countries, and that’s one of the reasons they’ve had the success they’ve had, but the important thing we’re working towards that, is the girls can play the game to whatever level they are capable of.
“And when your base pool is bigger, you’re going to get more elite players coming through. Our U17 and U19 squads, they are two talented squads. There’s huge hope that one of those — and with a bit of luck maybe both — will qualify for a finals tournament next year, but it’s still a huge step from 19s to senior.”
Indeed, it’s at underage level that Irish women’s football has enjoyed its biggest international successes: In the golden year of 2010, the U17s were runners-up in the European Championships and quarter-finalists in the World Cup, while in 2014 the U19 side reached the semi-finals of the European Championships.
The big omission to date in the CV of Irish women’s football is the failure of the senior team to qualify for the finals of a major tournament. It will now be the turn of the next manager to try to create that history, with an appointment expected in the New Year.
Ask Ronan if she thinks the new gaffer should be a woman and, having made it clear that she has no truck with tokenism, she says: “I want the person who is best qualified for the job and, if that produces a choice between a man and a woman, my preference would be for the woman.”
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