No need to look too far for this week's hero. Mayo footballer Sarah Rowe stuck her neck out last weekend and gave an insight into the world of women's sport away from all the fine words and good intentions. What she said was stark and uncomfortable and long, long overdue.
“With Mayo at the moment, we are training on a pitch in Ballyhaunis where there are only two floodlights and we can barely see to the other side and the pitch is absolutely in a heap. It doesn’t even compare.
“MacHale Park is the main pitch in Mayo and we get to play on it once a year for the Connacht final, while the lads train on it day in and day out. They get food after training, physio, access to any gym, they literally get whatever they want because they want to make them perfect – whereas we definitely don’t get that.
“It definitely impacts on players, but we’re nearly so used to it at this stage that it feels normal. We don’t complain about it because it’s not going to change anyway. It’s not acceptable, definitely not. When I look at any boys’ team – and I’ve talked to a few of them – I realise that I train more than them and they get way more than I’ve ever gotten. No lads team would put up with the conditions we train and play in, they would go nuts. The lads complain that the game isn’t professional, while we’d settle for a bit of food.”
Now, there are obvious realities to consider when you’re talking about the difference between men’s sport and women’s sport. The Mayo men’s team aren’t the commercial powerhouse that, say, the Dublin’s men’s team are but they bring in the guts of €250,000 a year in sponsorship money and a similar chunk of change in gate receipts from the National League and county championship.
That’s before there’s any fundraising done or summer camps run or Central Council grants drawn down. The travel expenses and gym memberships and sundry other benefits that come their way are covered by income that they play a big role in attracting. Same goes, to varying and diminishing degrees, with every men’s county team. With the best will in the world, the Mayo women’s team don’t have that pulling power.
And yet, the phrase, “We’d settle for a bit of food” has to make you sit up straight in your chair. There is a long road to travel for women’s sport and, in all frankness and honesty, it’s impossible to see all the miles being covered in this life or the next. But surely we can all get together and agree that a pot of curry after training for intercounty teams is the absolute least we ought to be able to do.
For that to happen, women’s sport needs more Sarah Rowes. And it needs them to be louder and bolshier and more willing to make things uncomfortable for the people in charge.
The only reason it is seen as being okay for the best women footballers and camogie players in the country to bring their own food to training is that they don’t complain about it. They are literally empty vessels, making no noise.
The fruits of the new
sponsorship of women’s football are there for all to see these days. That’s the whole point of it from Lidl’s point of view, after all – to be seen. Looking down from billboards, beaming out from the new TV ad. It’s all about eyeballs. But there’s something about it that all feels a little too self-congratulatory, all the more so in light of the day-to-day conditions the sport’s best players have to put up with.
No doubt about it, €1.5m a year is a phenomenal piece of business by the Ladies Gaelic Footballers Association. And the TV ad in particular is very striking. Lots of action, plenty of hits and spills and muck and dirt. It was filmed on location in Laois last month and a few of the players involved joked on Twitter afterwards about the production company having to pipe in fake rain to get the look of it just right.
Fake rain. In Ireland. During the wettest January in 60 years. While county teams are organising rosters for bringing food to training.
There’s something wrong with that picture.