Modernising a youth development system, as everyone out at the FAI knows by now, involves the banging of some heads together. As the changes made to the 2018 Gaynor Cup (the annual national girls' inter-league underage competition) have hit home at leagues around the country, Dave Connell sounds a little like he has been locked in a concussion ward with a few of his victims.
As part of an ongoing attempt to improve the nation’s production line of talent, Connell, the association’s head of women’s underage development and a successful manager of the Ireland under-17 and under-19 women’s teams in recent years, has sought to cut numbers at the prestigious annual tournament in order to raise standards. Some of those affected, it seems, believe that they weren’t kept up to speed and to judge by the 56-year-old, quite a few have got in touch in order to have their say.
"It's an elite competition and like most elite competitions there's a qualifying process now," he says of the event to be held in late June at the University of Limerick. "But some of the leagues didn't qualify. It was always going to be contentious but it's not something that was just sprung upon them."
The problem, he says, is a recurring one in the Irish women’s game: a shortage of quality and high end competitive edge. Leagues around the country often struggle to achieve a standard high enough to really test their own best players. Allowing more of them to enter the Gaynor Cup might allow players at some of the weaker ones a weekend in which to catch the eye but, he says starkly, “over the years the quality of it has dropped”.
The idea, needless to say is to make significant strides in the opposite direction. Ireland has punched well above its weight at major championships over the past decade with the highlight being 2010 when a team that included Megan Connolly and Katie McCabe lost to Spain in the final of the under-17 European Championships. As more countries wake up to the importance of developing the women's game, though, the competition is getting stiffer and "we have to up our game".
Within the next week or so, plans for a new under-17 national league will be unveiled, something he says that should help enormously. The hope is to emulate the men’s structures although under-19 is not quite the priority it was as so many of the players competing in senior club competitions are not much older than that.
“We have to do this because we have to produce these players ourselves,” he says “If you take Collie’s team (Colin O’Brien’s under-17 men’s side) the other night they had two players that were based at home whereas it’s pretty much the opposite for us. I had two players in this year’s under-19s who were based in the UK.
“But I work very closely with the clubs and say that they just don’t have the competition at local level and we find that where players are coming in who haven’t played for months. Obviously you have weather conditions and other factors but there just isn’t the volume of players either and that’s a serious issue.”
Many of those who do play effectively drift out of the system in their mid-teens and the new league, he hopes, will taken them a small but important step closer to playing senior football. “It looks there will be 11 teams (some of them representing regional leagues) so at maybe 20 per squad that’s over 200 players . What we will have to do then is look at where those players are going to go in two years’ time but for the moment it’s important progress.”
The challenges in the young women’s game are different to the men’s, he suggests, with the absence of multi-million euro contracts for even the luckiest ones helping to ensure there is a more grounded outlook.
A small but steadily increasing number of young female players can aspire to making a living from the game with more top level teams offering better professional terms while coaches are certain to be in demand as the numbers grow. A far greater proportion see college, ideally on a scholarship, as a stepping stone to wherever they are going, and as the range of openings at third level institutions expands here fewer and fewer are taking the traditional route of a move to America.
Connell says it is all hugely positive although obtaining greater levels of commitment from those identified as having the potential to join the senior international ranks is very much a priority. However, the dedication of some must be severely tested by the geographical spread of Centres of Excellence with just eight nationwide.
If you live in Dublin and have a straight choice between northside and southside that might seem restrictive enough when you and your parent are stuck in traffic on a weekday evening. But what if your catchment area is Donegal/Sligo/Leitrim or Galway/Mayo and you happen to live at the wrong end of a very, very long road? Connell acknowledges is it a problem but if standards are to be kept high and the best are to play against the best he contends there is no realistic alternative for the moment.
It is the case that they are going to have to make sacrifices,” he says, before getting on to the subject of other sports. “In the past it wasn’t such an issue, we would have had players doubling up on Gaelic football, camogie, soccer, whatever the case might be . . . sometimes they were coming in having already played something that day in school. We were probably piggy-backing on Gaelic games, if we are honest, because our players weren’t getting enough matches and were relying on playing those to stay fit.
“But we are looking for players who come to our centres of excellence to commit to it now. We have a lot of volunteer coaches who are making a big commitment and we probably want the girls to do that too, probably by the age of 16. At 12 you probably still don’t know what sports you want to play but if you’re that bit older and you want to be in the system then we want to you to want to be an Ireland international.”
As the structures improve, he hopes, clubs and the association will be better able to retain players like Sarah Rowe, Aileen Gilroy and Rachel Kearns – all of whom were regarded as having huge potential before opting to play Gaelic football at senior level for Mayo.
If they can do, he hopes in turn that Ireland can get to the stage where at least one of the women’s underage teams can compete at a European finals pretty much every year. He insists that would be huge for the development of the players involved.
“They are great occasions but it is more than that; it’s about developing players by getting them into an arena where they naturally want to do better. If you are continually doing that then it breeds that hunger into them and they come to see themselves as a part of a professional elite.”
Other countries are, of course, a long way down that particular road.
“That’s tough for us to come up against but since 2010 we’ve still been in four finals and we like to think that we can do better. That’s our goal, and our goal beyond that, of course, is to get to a senior women’s finals. They have tough games coming up against Norway but the result in the Netherlands show the progress that’s being made and the boost a qualification would give us would be incredible.”