The Irish football pyramid begins with the thousands of young girls who attended the Aviva Stadium last Saturday to watch the 3-0 defeat of Northern Ireland. It ends with hundreds of them being denied football in the Metropolitan Girls’ League (MGL) on Sunday morning.
I can only imagine what Saturday would have been like for the eight-year-old me. I would have worn my full Ireland kit to the Aviva. I’d have slept in my boots and shinguards that night, to be ready to play Sunday morning, to imitate Lily Agg’s headed finish or Tyler Toland’s crisp passing.
Consider the reality check for girls at clubs that were denied fixtures by an administrative conflict between the MGL and its ruling body, the North Dublin Schoolboys and Girls League? How does a parent explain this mess to their daughter after everything they have witnessed from McCabe’s lot these past two years?
The easiest option is to go play another sport.
The plan was to celebrate two wins from two Nations League matches under Eileen Gleeson. I’d happily dedicate this entire column to the creativity of Denise O’Sullivan (it’s been a minute since we saw the box-to-box version of Denise.)
I have to mention Emma Byrne’s impact on the Ireland squad since my friend and team-mate was named assistant coach. Emma has the qualifications and the experience to add serious value to every international window.
It is also worth noting that the association has put together an impressive senior management team in Byrne, Colin Healy and Ivi Casagrande, along with support staff like a nutritionist and sports psychologist, which puts an emphasis on the players to perform.
Despite some nervy play and lateral passing in the opening exchanges against Northern Ireland and Hungary, the performances were overwhelmingly positive as the top seed in Nations League B scored seven goals and banked six points.
Caitlin Hayes looked like a record-breaking signing. The new cap’s distribution alters how the team can build from the back. Hayes sees the channel ball for Kyra Carusa and she can ping 40-yard passes to McCabe on the left. She also lightens the load on Louise Quinn as the primary target offset piece. Add a fit-again Megan Campbell to the back three and Ireland will look the part under whoever is their manager in 2024.
It seems like that person will inherit a settled team and backroom staff.
Hayes’s impact is worth highlighting mainly because she is 28 years old and English-born. The Republic of Ireland must always recruit from the diaspora. No issues there, but what about our grassroots?
There is no pyramid without the big blocks down the bottom. In 2023, the same year we went to our first World Cup, the Metro Girls’ League has descended into a farcical situation.
It would be nice to see someone in Abbotstown step in and ensure our underage players have games every Sunday morning. We cannot blame the FAI’s head of women’s and girls’ football, as Gleeson is currently double-jobbing as interim Ireland head coach. It is barely possible to commit to one of those roles, never mind both at the same time.
Grassroots, the League of Ireland and “developing the full potential of women and girls football” are, literally, three of the FAI’s six strategic pillars in a published plan that began in 2022 and will end in 2025.
Now is the time to look after the girls who McCabe and O’Sullivan are inspiring. The leadership vacuum caused by Gleeson being temporarily named Ireland manager makes us wonder what exactly does legacy mean to the FAI?
The association appears to be a siloed organisation at a time when people playing and coaching the game need to see one governing body making clear, logical decisions. The overall message sounds great but translating corporate-speak into practical improvements remains an ongoing challenge.
I captain Peamount United in the “professional” League of Ireland. We are patiently waiting to take that word out of inverted commas. We might be top of the table with four games remaining, but we are not a professional football club. We do our best but that’s just a fact.
Peamount are title contenders but with the changing landscape and overall uncertainty around the league, we could struggle to survive as a club.
Players would love to know what the FAI means by pillar five, “framing the future of our League of Ireland”, now that we are two years into a four-year strategic plan. We just need to understand the vision, so we can get behind it.
We will support any efforts to grow the game we love and dedicate so much of our lives to. But is professionalism feasible? Explain how it can work?
This year’s World Cup was a special moment in the history of Irish sport. We know about the legacy of the men’s team reaching major tournaments since 1988. We know full well the dangers of history repeating itself.
The good times are here. Let’s not waste them.
Job one: sort out the Metro Girls’ League.
Get the next generation back on the grass. There is no future for Irish football without them.