Joanne O’Riordan: Women’s football making rapid strides
Imminent Super 8s deserve the support of all GAA fans
Donegal’s Sarah Jane McDonald has her shot saved by Kerry’s Laura Fitzgerald during the clash at Hyde Park in Roscommon. Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Something about this TG4 Ladies football championship seems different. It would be a bit over-the-top to say that this potentially is the best summer of ladies football yet. But, with a new format, stiff competition and a whole lot of promotion, it is safe to assume that this championship is set up not just for the present, but the future too.
New teams are emerging as strong contenders – Donegal, Armagh and Westmeath –, while the traditional footballing counties of Mayo, Galway, Cork, Kerry and Dublin are raising the standards to whole new levels.
Last week’s game between Donegal and Kerry was filled with everything you need in a championship clash, an attempted comeback, missed penalties and stand-out players taking their respective team by the scruff of the neck in an attempt to pull their teams over the line.
For Kerry, their midfield has seen a rejuvenation with basketball star Lorraine Scanlon doing what Kerry fans would often cite as the Kieran Donaghy job – field the ball majestically and open up the play for others to attack, in this instance, Amy Foley, Sarah Houlihan and Louise Ní Mhuircheartaigh. It has allowed manager Graham Shine to forget about past woes from the league and enabled him to concentrate and build for what is to come, as the U-16 ladies team lost to Galway after extra-time.
Then, of course, you have the firing-on-all-cylinders Donegal, who, under Maxi Curran and Damien Devaney, have emerged as real top contenders after grinding out wins over Kerry and newcomers Tipperary. As ever, the high-scoring Geraldine McLaughlin was raising white flags left, right and centre, while Eilis Ward, Yvonne Bonner, Niamh Hegarty and Karen Guthrie are all phenomenal players on their day who can give any teams headaches.
On top of that, if you find yourself open in the back, they will punish you, with their goal tally in championship alone amounting to 13 goals in less than six games.
Armagh, who have a point to prove after scraping their way into the quarter-finals on score difference, will be looking to avenge their Ulster final humiliation against the Tír Chonaill side. The Orchard County are still led by the Mackins and O’ Hanlon and McKenna will also have their say, as Armagh look to combat their high tally of wides accumulated throughout the championship.
In the other side of the draw, Galway will be looking to enhance their ambitions to climb the steps of the Hogan Stand to lift the Brendan Martin cup.
Having announced themselves as contenders with victories over Mayo, Waterford and Westmeath. Galway’s form comes at the perfect time to pounce on their near rivals Mayo, as stars like Louise Ward (her opening goal against Westmeath after just 18 seconds became an instant online hit), Leanne Coen, who is raising green and white flags galore and rising star; and Áine McDonagh, all look to establish themselves as household names come September, as they etch their way into history.
But, it is not just about the games or teams, as the ladies football rejuvenation has also taken place as Lidl and TG4 push sponsorship and expand it to a whole new level. You see, this, for me anyway, feels like the first time everywhere I go people want to stop and talk to you about the matches. People are clued in and inspired to see what is happening.
And sure, there have been hiccups along the way, the Mayo stars walking out, the dual star issues, but sponsorship also helps to build for the future. The Gaelic 4 Girls camps have seen a big increase in interest and the money invested by Lidl has enabled clubs to develop and plan for the future. Before, you had clubs with men’s hurling and football, but now, the social pressure for clubs to have both genders on their respective teams and an inclusive underage structure is phenomenal.
So while this summer of championship simmers to boiling point, we must also reflect on how far the sport has come and will continue to go with proper investment and support structures.
Data gained from the investment fund given by the Government to the WGPA has found many benefits to buttress structures with 84 per cent of players and 90 per cent of managers reporting that the grant scheme contributes to an increase in the general standard of the inter-county game.
While we definitely have a journey to go, the demand and appetite for women’s sport, and, in particular, ladies football and camogie, continues to grow.
On paper, there are reasons to be excited, rising talent, growing pool of players and a generation coming through with a higher skill level. However, it is up to fans to demand more and go out and support their teams.
The Super 8s in men’s football is drawing to a close, but the Super 8’s in ladies football has just begun. Be a proper fan and show some serious support.