One step forward, two steps back for women’s sport

Galway v Cork semi-final debacle highlights the ‘us and them’ attitude in Irish sport

Galway’s Sinead Burke and Mairead Seoighe after Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Cork. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Galway’s Sinead Burke and Mairead Seoighe after Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Cork. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

The conversation at our breakfast table livened up no end last Wednesday when the sports headlines announced that an All-Ireland senior semi-final between Galway and Cork was to be moved from Limerick to Parnell Park as the Limerick venue was needed for training. It’s not necessary to point out that it was a women’s match that was moved to accommodate a men’s training session as none of us can imagine the opposite ever happening.

The Limerick county board justified the move by saying that it had been made clear in advance to the LGFA that the Limerick hurlers would get priority over the ladies football semi-final were they to require the use of the pitch. And the LFGA issued a statement stating that they fully understood Limerick’s wish to use their own venue for training. The statement also said that the LGFA was grateful to the Dublin county board for making Parnell Park available.

But the question is why is a women’s senior match was scheduled for a venue that can be taken from them just days before if a men’s team want to train there? Why do they need to be grateful that they’re given an alternative venue? How was Croke Park not an option, and then it was? And why, in 2020, are we still asking these questions?

While I understand the GAA and the LGFA are separate associations, the issue is fairly indicative of how women’s teams are treated from the ground up. While they are separate, it is all Gaelic games. Talk to coaches of underage girls teams anywhere in the country and the likelihood is you’ll hear stories of frustration around the unfairness of pitch allocations, training resources, gear etc . . . Talk to young female players and you’ll hear more of the same.

Take Sophie Turley, a 17-year-old who plays minor football for Louth. “From under 12s to minor it’s been the same,” she said. “We might not know where we’re training until the night before. Our coaches will be phoning everywhere looking for a venue. I’m pretty sure that’s never the case for the boys.”

Insult was added to injury when the semi-final was moved, again, at the 11th hour on Sunday due to a frozen pitch at Parnell Park. As a result of the late change the live TV coverage on TG4 had to be called off. It’s hardly any wonder that the Galway manager Tim Rabbitt was unhappy with a seven minute warm-up and a referee shouting at his players as prep for a semi-final.

LGFA president, Marie Hickey, claiming on Morning Ireland on Monday that if Galway had spent less time in the changing room they’d have had more time to warm-up hardly helped matters.

Especially as Galway player Sinead Burke told Claire Byrne on radio that the team only found out after they had left Kinnegad that the venue and the throw-in time were changed and that the team only arrived to Croke Park at 12.30 for a 1pm throw-in. “It doesn’t shine a great light on ladies’ football in general . . . hopefully there will be lessons learned from yesterday,” she added.

It’s hard to imagine a manager of a men’s teams saying, as Rabbitt did, that their only regret was that they didn’t walk off the pitch.

So in the end, senior county players who had trained all year and succeeded in getting to an All-Ireland semi-final, after two venue changes, played a delayed game, in front of no crowd and with no television coverage. And thousands of young girls could not see their role models play. “If she can’t see it, she can’t be it.”

What does this say to all the underage players across the country? Keeping young girls playing sport is so vitally important on so many levels and is difficult enough without what happened at the weekend.

Molly Lamb, Kilmacud Crokes and former Dublin player said: “Yesterday was disgraceful, but not surprising. It’s time to move away from the attitude of the lovely ladies playing football, who are lucky to get into Croke Park at all. It’s time to join the GAA.”

The Lidl ads urging support for ladies football in recent years say “we’re not different. All we need is what every player needs. Support.” But the reality is they are different. And while we can pay lip service to how much the game has come on, and how great it is, the reality is encapsulated in what happened on Sunday.

Kevin Cahill, a former full back for Mayo for 10 years who was nominated for an All Star and is now manager of Kilmovee Shamrock’s ladies who won the Intermediate Championship in Mayo this year, said: “The ladies’ game seems to be years behind in relation to resources. But of course money is needed to provide these resources and the ladies game is not as appealing to sponsors.”

Last weekend’s shambles will hardly help make it any more appealing.

Evie Keeling and Ava Byrne celebrate Galway’s win at last year’s camogie final in Croke Park.
Evie Keeling and Ava Byrne celebrate Galway’s win at last year’s camogie final in Croke Park.

We are a GAA family. My children play camogie, football and hurling. Our summers are optimistically planned around trips to McHale Park, Pearse Stadium and Croke Park. As a Galwegian I brought my 10-year-old daughter to support my county in both the women’s football and camogie finals last year in Croke Park. The atmosphere in the home of Gaelic games, for both finals, was terrific. It was so great to be able to sit in the Hogan stand with my daughter and for a change, shout for the women. The stands were full of young (and not so young) girls in their club and county shirts. The cheer that went up across Croke Park when the record attendance was announced was uplifting.

But it was interesting listening my 10-year-old’s thoughts, as a girl and a young player, on the events of last week. She asked “what’s the difference between us and them?” Maybe someone could answer this for her. And for me.

Looking to apportion blame seems futile at this point. But this cannot be allowed happen again. Our daughters, sisters, mothers, nieces, who train just as hard as anyone else, deserve better. Much better.

Anna Kenny is an Irish Times journalist 

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