On the 21st October of this year, four thousand eager fans made their way to Tallaght Stadium to watch the second-ranked team in the world in women’s football, Sweden. Right?
Well, as much as there is always excitement when a big team comes to town, most of the excitement the fans that made the journey to Dublin 24 that evening felt was from going to see their own superstars play football.
Katie McCabe, Louise Quinn, and the rest of the Irish women’s national team.
That four thousand strong crowd was the fourth-highest attendance of a women’s football match in Ireland ever. With crowd restrictions due to COVID-19 still in place too it’s worth noting.
There is a definite buzz around football in Ireland right now, across both the men’s and the women’s games. On the men’s side, Stephen Kenny has his team playing some of the most exciting football the Boys in Green have played in years and stars, both young and old, in the League of Ireland are proving you don’t need to look overseas for some quality footballers.
And as much as it is exciting to be following the men’s team on their journey, it may be even more exciting to see what’s happening with their female counterparts.
And for Alice Linehan, it’s an exhilarating time to be around the team.
“It's really blown up this year in terms of how many people are realizing there’s a women’s league in our country and there are decent women’s footballers in our country as well.”
Alice works as Social Media Coordinator for the Women’s National League and Videographer and Social Media Assistant for the Women’s National Team and so has seen firsthand the increase in support for women’s football.
One of the biggest factors, in her opinion, for the steady growth has been the availability of streaming services for the Women’s National League (WNL).
“This is the first year that WNL games have been able to stream on LOITV. Before, the viewership was so much lower because people didn’t know the games were going on.
“Anyone who wanted to watch a game had to go to one. So, if your team is playing away, you’re a lot less likely to travel from Dublin to Galway or vice versa for example.
“So LOITV definitely made it easier for people to tune in.”
It’s an overdue, but welcome development for Alice who says that it has made her job much easier in being able to share content such as highlights and stats as and when they happen on the field, thus driving engagement.
“We can get game footage now.
“I’m not sure if you remember Stephanie Roche’s Puskás goal? The quality of that filming was bad. They were just lucky that they happened to have a clip of that goal, regardless of the quality.
“Now, any good goal that happens, there’s going to be footage there so people can share it on social media.”
Alice makes a good point. Roche, who is now in her second spell with Peamount United in Southwest Dublin, finished runner-up for the 2014 Puskás Award, a FIFA award given for the best goal scored in the previous 12 months, finishing second only to James Rodríguez’s stunning volley during the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
But as Alice rightly points out, that goal may have never even been seen by anyone, bar the match attendees, had someone not decided to hit record.
That is a thing of the past now in the advent of LOITV. And following on from that, the WNL got an even bigger boost as TG4 came on as a partner midway through this season’s competition, agreeing to an initial four-match deal that saw the debut of Irish women’s domestic football on the nation’s screens.
The momentum does not end with the Women’s National League either. 2021 has been a great year for the national team too. On the pitch, there have been highlight performances including a friendly win over Australia, a team 22 places higher than Ireland on the FIFA rankings.
The aforementioned game against Sweden ended in the narrowest of losing margins but was quickly followed up with a strong win away to Finland in what has been a strong start to the qualification campaign for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Alice tells a heartwarming story of her return to Ireland from Finland after her travels with the team.
“I remember coming home from Finland from the last camp. I got a taxi home after my bus from the airport. My taxi driver asked me where I was, and I told him I was in Finland. He said, “I don’t suppose you saw the women play over there did you?”. I told him I was working at it. He said, “Make sure to let them know that we’re supporting and watching”. To have an old man in a taxi know that the women’s team are playing and watching it and caring about it is so different from even a few years ago.
“Obviously, you still get people saying that no one cares about women’s football. But I find with the national team we don’t get that as much anymore. People seem to really respect this team and overall, it’s just been really positive.”
Respect and certainly admiration are two things the national team are receiving right now. And as well as every other factor, the women’s game is also benefitting from the 20x20 campaign.
Launched in October 2018, the 20x20 campaign’s aim was to increase attendance at women’s sporting fixtures, female participation in sport and media coverage on women’s sport by 20% by the year 2020.
This push for women’s sport across those three specific areas has greatly benefited women’s football and for Alice, it has been a really encouraging development. And she says the campaign’s tagline, “If She Can't See It, She Can’t Be It”, perfectly sums up what it’s all about.
“That whole tagline has been used so much but it’s been so effective. It’s been proven with the amount of young girls who know they can now make a career out of football.
“Even for me when I was growing up, you knew it was there, but you had no idea what way people go about it to become a professional.
“For people older than me, like some of the girls on the team, Louise Quinn, or any of them, I don’t think it was presented to them as an option at all. And now they’re some of the biggest Irish athletes out there at the moment.
“Like Katie McCabe, she’s huge. People can now look up at her and say “I want to be like Katie McCabe. I want to be like this girl from Tallaght”. It is really good. The Can’t See, Can’t Be, it is very effective in summarising the rise of women’s football.”
Katie McCabe. Credit: The42
She’s certainly not lying about Katie McCabe. The Irish captain has been at the forefront of each positive step the national team has made and has enjoyed great success in her club career at Arsenal, being named in the FA WSL Team of the Year for last season and only recently winning Player of the Month for the month of October.
So where to next? Well for the national team, they’ll be continuing on with their World Cup qualifying campaign with an upcoming double header of matches at Tallaght Stadium against Slovakia (November 25th) and Georgia (November 30th) with the aim of giving themselves a strong footing before a trip to Sweden in April of next year.
And while the 2021 season may be finished for the Women’s National League, there are already reasons to be excited about the 2022 season. Sligo Rovers will make their debut as the league’s newest team to bring the total number of teams to ten, matching the number of teams in the men’s premier division.
For Alice, the challenge facing the league now is two-fold. Ramping up the coverage, but perhaps most importantly, hanging on to the talent within the league.
“Definitely they’re going to want to look at extending the TG4 involvement and getting them on board for more games next season.
“There’s been a lot of new initiatives this year like LOITV. Just having more social media coverage. Doing the WNL wrap. Posting goals. Posting stats. That’s to continue on next year.
“I think the challenge will be keeping players in the country. We have so much talent, but they want to be professional, and you can’t really blame them for going abroad if they’re not going to get paid here.
“So, I think that eventually, they’ll have to look at maybe becoming semi-professional to try and keep some players here. That will be a challenge. But the way things are going, the only way is up, and I think eventually we will get to that stage.”
It is a problem that plagues the men’s and women’s leagues alike with no easy fix available. But regardless of this fact, it cannot be denied that it is still a very exciting time for Irish women’s football.
You can keep up with all the action going on in the Women’s National League on their socials:
Facebook: FAI Women’s National League
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