The plan at the end of last season, after Shelbourne had completed their league and cup double, was simple enough, says their assistant manager Joey Malone. “Keep everyone we had, then bring in one or two more players to put the cherry on top of the cake.”
By the end of December, there was no cake on which to place any incoming cherries.
Well, that’s how it felt initially for Shelbourne, so stunned was the club by the departure of six of their players, all of them heading to Shamrock Rovers.
Since announcing last November that they would be re-entering the league, having dropped out nine years before, Rovers have been using their financial clout in the aftermath of the introduction of professional contracts to lure some of the country’s finest talent.
By the end of January, they had signed 20 players, Shelbourne and Peamount United losing six each to the upstarts.
Among those to leave Shelbourne were Abbie Larkin, the 17-year-old who already has five senior Irish caps to her name, goalkeeper Amanda Budden, centre-half Shauna Fox and right-back Jess Gargan. “That’s the spine of your team,” says Malone, who was speaking at the launch of the new SSE Airtricity season on Wednesday, the women’s premier division kicking off on March 4th.
And among the half dozen players Peamount saw head for Tallaght were internationals Aine O’Gorman and Stephanie Roche, Republic of Ireland centre-half Savannah McCarthy also signing up having left Galway.
[ Stephanie Roche signs for Shamrock Rovers ]
Having lost seven senior internationals to British clubs in the last couple of seasons - Emily Whelan, Jess Ziu, Izzy Atkinson, Jamie Finn, Chloe Mustaki, Saoirse Noonan and Ciara Grant - Shelbourne are no strangers to having to rebuild, but as Malone says, “if it was to happen again we’d have thought it would be to English clubs - not a club in our own league”.
“I think there was resentment for a couple of days, but you don’t get long in football to mend your wounds,” he says. “It was frustrating and disappointing to lose so many, especially when everyone said they were happy to stay, but you just have to get on with it.”
“The pressure’s now on the professional Shamrock Rovers, everyone will expect them to win the league. We’ve been busy going around trying to get a few new players in and we’re bringing in one or two from Canada and America. Our U17s did the double last year as well, so we have some good young players coming up. So, we’ll be there, we’ll be competing, we’ve still got a good squad.”
There’ll be no shortage of spice, then, in the new season, circle March 18th - Shelbourne v Shamrock Rovers - on your calendar, TG4 will be showing it live.
Rovers manager Collie O’Neill, who led UCD to the men’s division one title back in 2018, is savouring the challenge, though, and downplays any annoyance from rivals irked by his club swiping some of their best players.
“It’s all entertainment,” he smiles. “If I’m not upsetting every other manager in the league, I’m not doing my job properly. But it’s a one-off season, most years you’re trying to sign one or two players, this year you’re trying to sign twenty. Of course you’re going to upset some people along the way, but I’m just doing my job for the club.”
“The challenge for us is to get the players to gel. You’ve some who’ve come from Shels, some from Athlone, some from Peamount, they’ve all done things different ways, so the most important thing we’re trying to implement is the culture and how they interact with each other. We have to get that right, and then start working on the football. That’s where it could take time. We’re going to try and be as competitive as we can, but we’ll probably just run out of time. Maybe next year we’ll be there or thereabouts.”
“But it’s an exciting time to be involved in women’s football, there’s a great buzz. You can see it all the way down to grassroots level. My kid plays with Leicester Celtic and two years ago they had two girls teams. This year they have four and next year they’re looking to probably have eight teams, and that just shows you the growth in the women’s game in the last couple of years. And with the women qualifying for the World Cup, it’s helped bring that on even more.”
[ Aviva pitch redevelopment denies Irish women historic first versus France ]
The Drogheda native, who was appointed to the Rovers job last October, now has on his hands a number of players vying for
places in Ireland’s World Cup squad, Larkin and O’Gorman among them, although Roche has been largely overlooked by Vera Pauw the last couple of years.
“The promise we gave them when they signed was that we would do everything as professionally as possible, so it would compare with what they would find in England. So the players here won’t be at any disadvantage compared to those playing in England, they’ll be put in the shop window for Vera.”
“And these players have exceeded expectations for me every day - not just in terms of their ability, but their mindset, their attitude, their commitment, everything.”
“But it’s a work in progress, it will take time to get all these players to gel. We’ll challenge as best we can, but it will probably take a year. I understand the expectations because of the quality of players we’ve signed, but pressure comes with taking a manager’s or coach’s role at Shamrock Rovers - you can feel it as soon as you walk in the door. You need to achieve, we know that.”