One would be forgiven for thinking that it was 12.30pm - lunch time in a school playground, rather than 8.30pm on a Tuesday night. In fact, the following were the exact words of a local Rochfortbridge lady as she spoke to me through the fence of the gaa Astro pitch:
"All we could hear was the laughing, and loud chatting at first; but as we got closer, our eyes were captured by the group of young women all in their pink uniformed training kits; this all looks very professional"
For inside that fence, our u17/18s Real FA Swans girls’ club side were hard at work. Zipping the ball around the now greasy surface from the due and mist that was steadily descending, our girls were barking instructions at each other in an impressively competitive environment. Each knew the consequence of losing and the embarrassing forfeit waiting for them - the topic of the jokes that provided a competitive edge to the game.
This particular group of girls have being with their coaches just over six years now. Yes, like all teams we have lost some players along the way, but we have always gained a few each season. Our leadership has not always being perfect, but as a group, we have a fantastic bond with all players, coaches, and parents. We are with each other three times a week and often arrange trips in and out of the country, as well as attending FAI Cup Final Days and Women's’ International Matches. Let's just say we have each other’s back.
Over the past number of weeks, it has become very clear that when it comes to schoolboy/girls’ soccer in the country or in the development of the game there is plenty of lip service and hot air floating around without any real substance. Self-serving people who hold a positions of authority emerge; these are people who like to use that authority to suit themselves and their agendas rather than looking at things with rational eyes and from a player-development point of view.
As a group, our girls expressed interest in playing Sunday football this year. This was for a number of reasons. Saturday part time work now comes into effect for many of our girls; with the work experience they are gaining from Transition Year placements, the employers are now giving them some paid work at the weekends. Furthermore, our girls finished second behind Athlone Town last season and apart from one other game versus Birr Town, we scored five or more goals in each league game. Athlone Town have since entered the U17s National League and have had a commendable season to date. During last season we turned up at another venue on a Saturday morning to be faced with eight players in the opposition. The opposition claimed that they didn't want to inform us of their inability to field a team on the Friday night in fear of getting a fine from the schoolboys/girls’ league. The final straw for the girls came during a home game. Having had a fantastic first half and playing some excellent football, shortly into the second half we were asked to blow the game up early as we had scored too many goals. As coaches we try and find a fair solution to this and put a restriction in place. It seems, however, that whatever you try to do you get ridiculed. We already had players playing in different positions on the pitch, and imposed a possession emphasis of ten passes. The game finished with ten minutes gone in the second half.
Innocently (and understandably) the girls asked why they were getting punished every other week for being the best they can be and for being well prepared? Young women they may be, but intelligent ones nevertheless. This is a question we simply can't answer. To top this particular weekend off, on the Saturday evening an email was sent to all club secretaries stating that a team in the league behaved in a very unsportsmanlike manner. What a farce.
As a club, we have had players participate in the Gaynor Cup competition, and we also had two Irish u16s trialists. Combining all of these factors and guided by our players who wished to stay together as a group and who wanted a higher standard of football, we decided to seek this higher standard of football for our girls.
We informed the current league that we were playing in about teams and age groups that we had intended to participate in the upcoming season. This would be our new u10s & u12s. We also stated in that same email that our u16s/17s will not be participating in the league in the upcoming season. We made contact with, and were accepted into, the new league in which the girls wished to play. Our girls individually filled out appropriate paperwork and made their payment; all was good to go and everyone was looking forward to the unknown but anticipated challenge.
Let me just state that we as a club or, personally as a committee member and head coach, we are not looking for sympathy, support or anything else from this article. We simply want to highlight how a clerical error, lack of foresight, and what a position that holds a little power can do in terms of potentially ruining a girls team or, at least, halting girls progression as footballers.
As the chairman of our small club I should have been aware that there was a procedure in place to leave the current league we were playing in. However this was not the case, and at no stage during the previous exchange of emails were we informed that there was paperwork to be completed for our u16/17s. We now find ourselves in the situation of friendly/development football for the year due to a rule we were unaware of and the league in which we played in last year having highlighted this to the FAI and thus blocked our move. Having had weeks of dialogue with the powers that be in the running of soccer in this country we are no further on and in limbo.
When we informed the players of what the league has done they were heartbroken. In fact they were adamant and as a group decided that whatever happens from here on, they will stick together as a group. I did mention earlier how much of a unit they were. They were also adamant that they would not be forced to play in a league that offered them very little by way of competitive football and player development. The parents of these kids who show huge commitment each week couldn't believe how negative and childish adults were being - all over a simple clerical error. This is definitely of a self-serving individual or a group of individuals who clearly feel under threat from a small club who carry out all of their dealings with ultimate professionalism with players’ development to the fore of what we do.
Colin Bell, the Irish Ladies’ manager said in his little promotion video before the game versus Northern Ireland, “ ...it’s 2018; everyone deserves a chance to play." He also said that he strives for excellence, development and trying to make the girls the best they can be, or something very similar to that. We echo the same sentiments and ideas, and have bought into the whole coach education by adding a UEFA B coaching accolade to our portfolio of Continuous Professional Development.
At the end of it all, the statistics dictate that not many of these girls will be international footballers. However as coaches, we have a duty of care to help them excel, and reach whatever level they can. We also have a duty of care to them to keep them involved in the game for as long as possible, especially when the drop off rate at this age group seems to be rising each year.
Again, I'm just looking to make people aware of the pitfalls that unfortunately reside in grassroots soccer in this country. We as a club have learned from our lack of knowledge - of not knowing about a simple procedure that could at any stage have been pointed out to us. In the wake of recent events, however, one could be forgiven for the view that this nugget of information was not passed on to us for a reason. As this goes to press we are still left in limbo and await clarification from the FAI on where we stand now. The fact remains these girls are being denied the chance to play football in their own country at a standard they deem suitable to match their ability.