It’s been a rare old fortnight for the Football Association of Ireland, a body not overly accustomed to positive headlines. But there’ve been a fair few of them of late regarding developments on the women’s side of the game, ones that Irish rugby could only read, envy and then weep.
The latest was a shot in the arm for domestic football with the news that TG4 will expand on its already admirable commitment to women’s sport by showing live coverage of four National League games in the coming weeks as the title race reaches its climax – the first time in its decade-long history that the league will be shown live on television.
Before then, FAI chief executive Jonathan Hill had announced that the women’s senior team would, from now on, receive the same match fees as their male internationals, following in the pay parity path of the likes of England, Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Brazil. Hot on the heels of that much vaunted news came the announcement that Sky had signed a four-year deal to sponsor the women’s team, the first time they had secured ‘standalone’ sponsorship, rather than just being included in a package with the men.
It was, as many noted, a long way from Liberty Hall back in April 2017 when the squad went public about its abysmal treatment by the FAI. The IRFU will now have to embark on a similar journey, not because there’s any apparent desire on their part to show a bit of respect to their women’s game, more because they’ve most likely had their sponsors on the phone this week imparting messages along the lines of ‘lads, sort it out, you’re mortifying us – the slogan isn’t Team of Us (Apart From The Birds)’. And women, apparently, use mobile phones and broadband too.
On the face of it, the FAI’s pay parity announcement might have seemed a purely symbolic matter, important as symbolism can be. It wasn’t a case, after all, of the women’s fees being raised to match the men’s, rather the men’s would be reduced to partly fund the parity, with the FAI making up the difference.
Before the agreement, the men were picking up €2,500 per match, €2,000 more than the women, so even if they’re only meeting somewhere in the middle, it’ll be no insignificant boost to the amateur members of Vera Pauw’s squad, and even to many of her professionals.
Eleven of her players are with English Super League clubs where salaries start around the £20,000 mark (€23,400), some way short of the estimated £350,000 (€410,000) Chelsea pay Sam Kerr annually, making her the league's highest paid player.
One Irish international was pleased enough with the £35,000 (€41,000)salary she was offered by a Super League club, only to learn that £12,000 (€14,000) would be taken out of that for her accommodation and a course she planned on doing, which she hoped the club might cover. So, if you’re picking up five or six grand a year for turning out for Ireland, to top up a salary that could be as much as £12,000 below the average British industrial wage (£32,000 a year, €37,500), then it’s a whole lot more than symbolic.
As for the Sky deal, no figures were provided, so we have no clue how beneficial it will prove, but, again, the symbolism is strong. Camogie, for example, had no title sponsor for its All-Ireland Championships this year after Liberty Insurance opted not to renew its contract, and it wasn’t a good look for the sport. Having a big name sponsor emblazoned on your shirts is no small thing.
So, off-the-field, there’s been no little progress for the international football team.
On it? Not so much.
It's debatable how useful Fifa rankings are in assessing progress, but for what it's worth, Ireland have fallen a place to 33 since Pauw took over from Colin Bell two years ago this month. And even though the FAI gave her a new two-year deal in February of last year, that's not the trajectory they would have anticipated when they appointed someone with a chunky international CV.
“When I heard it was Sky, I had goosebumps because a partner like Sky will inspire all the girls,” said Pauw of the sponsorship deal. But what would inspire the girls much more would be a team realising its potential and qualifying for a major tournament.
Under Pauw, this Irish team is on a seven-game losing streak – although, in fairness, all of those games were against teams ranked higher than them, including two against Germany, who are at number three in the world list. But scoring just three and conceding 14 goals in that run doesn’t point to a team on the up.
They blew it in the qualifying campaign for Euro 2021, a draw away to Greece, ranked 30 places below them, and a defeat to Ukraine, thanks to a calamitous own goal, ultimately denying them a place in the playoffs.
Ukraine, instead, advanced to those playoffs where they were comfortably beaten 4-1 by Northern Ireland, whose pool of players pales next to what is at Pauw’s disposal.
Too often, though, the performance of Pauw and her team are assessed in terms of what they achieve off-the-field, rather than on it. Stephen Kenny would be entitled to smile. There's no parity of dog's abuse here.
It’s no different in rugby. Imagine if the lads lost to Spain in a World Cup qualifier? There’d be blood on the ceiling. Instead, there was a kind of an ‘ah bless’ response to our women doing the same on Monday, accompanied by flexing-muscles emojis. It’d kind of lead you to feeling that parity will only be achieved when our women’s teams are scundered as much as the lads when they screw up.
And this Irish football team possesses enough talent to be doing way, way better than its results under Pauw. Katie McCabe and Denise O'Sullivan would find their way on to most international teams, and then there's a core of experienced warriors like Louise Quinn, Diane Caldwell, Niamh Fahey and Megan Connolly, with a fair bunch of youthful talent thrown in.
There’d be no shame in losing their next two games, even if that took the losing streak to nine, their opponents Olympic semi-finalists Australia in a friendly in Tallaght on Tuesday, and Sweden, ranked at two in the world, in next month’s World Cup qualifier. After that, though, Pauw’s team take on Finland, Slovakia and Georgia, before the end of the year, in their qualifying group, Finland the only one of the three ranked above them.
If there’s to be any sign of progress, and a hint of a goosebumping chance of qualifying for the 2023 World Cup, then at least six points needs to be taken from those games.
Anything less, then forget the off-the-field stuff. Time to show these players, and their coach, some respect – and scrutiny – by judging them by what they do on the pitch.