Declan Darcy: Cancellation of ladies' minor football will drive players away from sport

These girls are our future players and they’re not being treated equally with the boys

 The Dublin ladies senior  team celebrate  after beating Cork in the All-Ireland final at Croke Park in December 2020. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

The Dublin ladies senior team celebrate after beating Cork in the All-Ireland final at Croke Park in December 2020. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

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This has not been an easy issue. The cancellation of the ladies' minor All-Ireland championships for the past two years and the imposition of an August deadline for provinces, which caused Leinster to abandon theirs, has been so disappointing for this age group.

I know that the decision is of course influenced by the dependence of many senior teams on minors, unlike in the men’s game.

So I’m totally respectful of the position of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association and the decision they’ve made but I’d like there to have been more focus on what the impact has been on the issue of equality and what could be done to address that.

I asked my daughter Ella, who’s part of the current Dublin panel what the feeling was because they have a WhatsApp group and are always in touch with each other. The big come-back was, “how come the boys are going ahead and ours isn’t?”

Not only are the boys going ahead but they are actually being accommodated in completing last year’s interrupted competitions.

There are positives at the moment in the game. Senior footballers got equality in expenses with male counterparts under the Government scheme, which is fantastic, but these under-18s are our future players and they’re not being treated equally with the boys. This is now moving things in the opposite direction to what’s going on at adult level.

Draconian

Is it fair? I just asked the question was every possible effort made to give something to this age group. It didn’t need to be major. You’d be gone after one game in a knockout competition, for instance, and the reality is that there are A, B and C grades so the numbers aren’t as big as an open national competition. It’s a limited field.

For me, the August deadline was draconian. They should have reached out to the coaches and asked what could work – and I understand that there are challenges with club activity but it wouldn’t have taken much to address the concerns of the group.

It’s probably too late now for this year’s minors but could an under-19 or under-20 competition be organised in the year ahead to give the girls something to look forward to? For instance, the GAA decided when re-organising the minor from under-18 to under-17 to provide once-off championships to accommodate those caught in the age gap.

As things stand, it’s over. I’m with these guys since they were 12 and they’re now 18. At the beginning, we were saying, “this is the journey – we will try to pick good pathways for you”, and the club is massively important in that as opposed to taking them away into an elite bubble.

We kept the club as a core influence on their development and it’s been overwhelmingly positive but over the last two years, it’s all fallen away and the great narrative that we spun them six years ago has just tailed off with no natural destination. Just an abrupt halt.

My concern is that this group of girls in their disappointment may no longer have the energy or the sense of fun and love for the game to pursue this level of their sport unless they’re lucky enough to be in a strong club.

I don’t think it should be left like this. I don’t think the message we want to send out is that when a crisis arose – and we all know the scale of it – that the hopes and ambitions of these young, massively enthusiastic footballers were considered dispensable.

Disappointment

There should have at least have been specific communication with them, acknowledging their loss and disappointment and laying out what could be done to address the situation.

There should have been some recognition that this was not just concern for a minor championship in itself, but for a process that has gone on for six years and developed young athletes. They have been incredibly committed to the game itself. It’s been a brilliant journey with them and it has been fun.

Even at club level in Clanna Gael, it’s been about sharing thoughts and ideas on the pathways that players can take. We’ve had phenomenal athletes in our group. There’s a girl going on to Irish athletics, a goalkeeper gone on a scholarship to America; we’ve international hockey players.

I don’t see them as any different to the boys. I consider them all to be young athletes and footballers. They all want to be the best they can be.

In fairness to the LGFA most of what they do is excellent. They have blitzes at under-14 and under-16 in Laois, which are fantastic occasions. It’s a wonderful experience for players, parents and anyone involved and a great selling point for the sport.

We can’t drop the ball on this. You’re going to lose players to other sports and girls and young women have a lot more options these days, which is terrific to see. I would like the LGFA to be a bit more imaginative and try to see this situation through the eyes of their younger players, who are literally the future of the game.

– Declan Darcy is manager of the Dublin women’s minor team and has worked with the cohort of players for the past six years. A close associate of Jim Gavin, he was involved in the management of Dublin’s footballers for the period 2013-19 as both coach and selector in six All-Ireland title wins.

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