The Irish Women’s Team returned to an inspired crowd last Thursday. They sang and danced, just like they did in Brisbane after bowing out, unusual in heartbreaking circumstances. However, it was a visual representation of the magnitude and context of what they had accomplished. Even if there were issues going on in the background, it was very obvious that it wasn’t enough to overshadow celebrations of a massive overachievement despite the media’s best efforts.
My interest in women’s football stems back to 2001. My primary school team, containing several of my close friends was a powerhouse on the schoolgirl circuit. The team which contained 4 time All-Ireland winner Niamh McEvoy and other girls who enjoyed sporting success years later dominated to the extent that they represented Leinster and there was talk they would represent Ireland in an international tournament that didn’t quite become feasible. We had to attend the games given the schools pride in what a special team it was and with that has come my fond memories of women’s football.
I then became a keen viewer of the women’s FA Cup which was broadcasted on BBC. I had 4 channels as a kid so live football was always a novelty. My early memories was a strong Fulham team and quickly, Rachel Yankey became my favourite women’s player. Despite being a Man United fan, it was hard not to admire the Arsenal side after Yankey moved there but also, I was delighted and fiercely proud to learn that three of their players, Ciara Grant, Yvonne Tracy and the legendary Emma Byrne were key players, and all Irish.
Why am I explaining all of this? Because over the last couple of months, I like many others have had to listen to genuine fans and broadcasters try to unfairly justify their knowledge and interest in women’s football, possibly out of fear of being labled as ‘bandwagoners’. I have also had to endure some so called ‘experts’ with a platform demonstrate their complete lack of knowledge in women’s football while trying to school others and create a narrative pertaining to the Irish women’s team. I would like to think I have had a fairly substantial grasp of the women’s game for the guts of 20 years and with that, a deep understanding of the context of the Irish women’s national team over the last two decades. This is why I, like many others by the sounds of things, have found the media’s coverage so infuriating lately.
I watched the play-off win over Scotland in a hotel in Mullingar while on a work trip. When Ireland conceded an early penalty, I felt the hope was nice while it lasted and anticipated the floodgates opening.However, Courtney Brosnan’s save from Caroline Weir kept us in the mix, galvanised us and rattled the Scots. Amber Barretts goal still hasn’t hit my reality and at full time, I felt an out-of-body experience and despite being overjoyed, asked myself, ‘how on earth is this even happening?’
The reaction did not come from the sole fact we were off to a World Cup, but because this team was in the gutter only 6 short years ago.
We all remember and are aware of the 13 player press conference in which they described themselves as ‘fifth class citizens’. Fitness programmes, kit and accommodation, the basic bread and water of international football, the bare minimum were not afforded to a raw and talented side. Remuneration was another glaring issue and the whole provision by the FAI was nothing short of a national embarrassment given the quality the squad possessed.
That was only 6 years ago. It takes some international sides, men’s or women’s decades to recover from that and really, Ireland were going into the abyss. Thankfully, during his short stint, interim FAI general manager Noel Mooney was keen to make key changes to Irish football . One of them being the appointment of Vera Pauw. The Dutchwoman came with a massive pedigree with this being her 5th international job. She had a reputation for being demanding, strict but fair. The approach clearly worked when she took us from a crisis, to a World Cup in no time.
The build up for Pauw herself was complex when it should have been a time of bliss. The report by the US National Women’s Soccer league suggesting misconduct by the Ireland manager during her time as Houston Dash manager was strongly denied. However, it was damaging and undoubtably demoralising for Pauw, all coming just a few short months after speaking of the sexual abuse abuse she suffered as a player.
Fast forward to the World cup and let’s give a brief but fair analysis in a nutshell. Ireland were drawn in the group of death with the hosts and one of the tournament favourites, the Olympic Champions and one of Africa’s strongest sides. We were set up rigidly, we didn’t look out of place and essentially went out because of a soft penalty and an own goal. We also scored our first World Cup goal and gained our first world cup point. Perfect? No. A million miles away 6 years ago? Absolutely . A need to contextualise? 100%
This is where the ‘experts’ get shown up. Not on a lack of football knowledge, but a lack of understanding of the women’s game which I believe has been compensated by unfairly scrutinising some of Pauw’s calls and an overemphasis of rumoured unrest in the camp. It is fine to question a manager, but you have to back it up with an informed counter argument. Some ‘experts’ claim we should have been more expansive. Pauw moulded this team to compete and look part of the World Stage, you can’t change the style overnight and don’t need to when it has heralded success. If we played more expansive, we would have shipped more goals and would have been whitewashed. My only criticism of Pauw was not playing an extra midfielder to free up Denise O’Sullivan as a 10. however, that would have surrendered width which I believe the Australians and Canadians would have constantly exploited given the quality they had out wide.
As for the selection and substitutions? Just to give a couple of examples, there were clamours for Amber Barrett to start based off her goal in Hampden. In qualification, Barrett only managed one other goal in the drubbing of Georgia and has just come off a season without a goal in Germany despite people assuming she was prolific. People also questioned why Pauw left Sinead Farrelly on against Nigeria despite Katie McCabes calls to withdraw the 33 year-old. Farrelly was our best player on the pitch and important to us retaining the ball. It was essential she was there to put her foot on the ball and to see out the game.
in the meantime, unrest within the camp has been speculated and perhaps not helped by Katie McCabe barking instructions at Pauw in the dying embers of the campaign with the latter righty laying down the hierarchy in the post match press conference. People have accused Pauw of throwing McCabe under the bus but really, the media have thrown this team under the bus. Marissa Sheva was vilified following her error in the opener and sadly this reflected her tournament, the words about her were unfair and unhelpful.
Regarding the camp. There perhaps were problems and drama and things may come out but for now, its speculation. Since the beginning of major tournaments, there have been fallouts in camps, the players are literally locked away together for weeks. We all talk about Saipan in 2002 but there was also shit storms in the Slovenia and Sweden camps. These were all in the same tournament and how many more drama’s just didn’t make it into the public eye throughout the years? Tension comes with the territory in international tournaments and there is always a dissection of some description afterwards about what went right and what went wrong, its how teams progress and grow.
Without anything more than speculation, the media have become obsessed with the tensions in the squad which could turn out to be bog standard. They have made it out to be a hybrid of 2002 and 2012. The talisman player and manager at loggerheads akin to Keane/McCarthy coupled the strict camp of Giovani Trapattoni. Last week, the Green Machine admin were contacted by a media outlet regarding a deleted tweet criticising their coverage of the teams speculated troubles and the treatment of Vera Pauw. I believe the tweet was deleted because the language used was unfair rather than the content of the tweet being unfair.
The outlet were very fair in their response but claimed that the coverage of the camp ‘drama’ was only a small proportion of the work they are doing. Although this may be true, most of what I see on Twitter which is a key vessel for any shows snippets and soundbites to hook listeners in seems to be chat of said drama and them defending their coverage. Underneath is a plethora of comments criticising their coverage. To be fair to the outlet, they for the most part have covered the footballing aspect of the tournament well. I’ve been in the game of reporting and you cannot sit on a story, but I feel the nature of some of the reporting from some outlets has been feckless based on speculation, exasperated, badly timed and is now becoming tiresome.
What perhaps hasn’t helped is the success of nations like Jamaica and Morocco. Many forget however, that both sides have received significant private funding which has helped them to develop players and recruit ‘Granny Rule’ players. It took these nations years to get to that stage with the help of finances while Pauw got Ireland to the finals with her systematic approach rather than a funder. It is also worth noting that top nations Germany, Brazil and China didn’t progress past the group stage and Olympic Champions Canada couldn’t get out of our group.
I hate glorious failures but the coverage of the Women’s Team now should revolve around how on earth we got to a World Cup 6 years after a breaking point, rather than the obsession over the bog standard tensions that come hand and hand with an international squad away at a tournament. If more substantial issue come out, then will be the time to cover it but for now, the focus should be on a celebration of what has been a massive overachievement and investigating what the blueprint for success was.