Jessica Foy of Northern Ireland. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
It’s been a year of firsts for women’s football on the island of Ireland but the latest breakthrough in the North is one to be envious of.
Jessica Foy last week became the first professional footballer employed within the 32 counties when Northern Ireland Premiership champions Glentoran opted to protect their prize asset.
She won’t be alone in having the privilege, for the watershed is the opening salvo in what the Glens claim is the start of “a process of professionalising Northern Ireland’s most successful women’s squad”.
Linfield, their traditional rivals in the six-team division, won’t be left behind either, already in talks to replicate the policy of increasing the standards and status of players.
The move is a natural progression, mirroring that of most European leagues, and does, inadvertently at least, throw scrutiny of why their neighbours in the Republic continue to operate on an amateur basis.
Although Women’s National League (WNL) clubs have made more strides in European competition, reaching the last-32 stage of the Uefa Champions League twice, albeit most recently seven years ago, and lead in the European coefficients (32 v 43), they’ve been beaten to this landmark.
“This is a truly historic moment,” gushed Glens’ chairman Stephen Henderson. “I’m delighted that our club is in a position to recognise the hard work, dedication, and talent of our women footballers, by not just paying lip service to their professionalism, but by turning it into a reality.
“These contracts reward our players for their dedication and commitment, whilst also providing some protection to our club for their development.”
When comparing against the Republic model, aside from the reputational benefit the term professional yields, the difference is two-fold: Wages and transfer fees.
It took until the start of last season, 11 years after the WNL began, for the practice of paying to play to cease. Players were expected to stump up for their affiliation fees, either by sourcing a sponsor or personally fundraising.
Success came with a price. Title-winners Wexford were forced in 2019 to crowdfund the costs of their Champions League group in Lithuania.
“I found the difficulty and distractions players faced to be extraordinary,” said Stephen McGuinness, secretary of the Players Football Association of Ireland (PFAI).
“I didn’t realise the extent of the problem until we began getting involved in the women’s league.”
Peamount stalwart and Irish international Áine O’Gorman now represents the female sector on the union’s committee.
In trying to keep pace with the North, it would be naïve to suggest WNL players don’t get paid. Yet the reality is that, for most, the money is a subsistence allowance, designed to cover outlays on essentials such as equipment, transport, and gym membership.
“Professional contracts are the only way to go,” insists McGuinness, who is well aware of the northern progress by representing the national team heading for their first-ever tournament at this summer’s Euros.
“I have to say I’ve found the Irish Football Association much more open than the FAI on how to improve player welfare. It’s better all round for the players and clubs to follow what the North have done. It gives both a degree of security.”
Which leads into the second consequence of professionalism. Since Kenny Shiels guided his predominantly home-based squad through the playoffs against Ukraine, interest in their players from abroad has spiked.
Glentoran aren’t on a humanitarian mission here; fully cognisant stars such as Foy are assets.
They only need to peek down south to be versed in the risk of losing them for nothing.
Unlike the men’s game, Fifa compensation for training and development doesn’t apply. Clubs responsible for the player’s upbringing until they’re 23 are not entitled to a cent once they transfer out of contract.
Fees are payable while under contract but the absence of these on the domestic scene saw Peamount United and Shelbourne lose three players to English Super League outfit Birmingham in the run-up to their top-of-the-table clash in September.
Dream switches for Jamie Finn, Emily Whelan, and Eleanor Ryan-Doyle left their clubs in the nightmare scenario of operating without them and being left empty-handed.
Peamount’s goalkeeper Naoisha McAloon became the latest export last week when joining second division Durham and Shels pair Saoirse Noonan and Ciara Grant are also subject to interest from England.
“Women’s football is now the in-thing across Irish sport but our league urgently requires professional status,” contended Joey Malone, coach of Shelbourne’s title winners.
“It is professional in everything except name because our players dedicate themselves equally to men in terms of training and preparation. We’ve got the added commitment of Champions League this summer but still, as amateurs, there’s nothing to stop a repeat of last year where Birmingham swooped in to take two of our players for free.”
To make the leap, the FAI would need to apply for a professional upgrade from Uefa.
There appears to be no real appetite for that sea change in the short-term, especially when the priority areas revolve around developing underage structures and getting clubs to meet the FAI’s own licensing requirements.
In the meantime, we can only watch in wonderment at how those closest to home make the most of their resources to prosper.
Their Uefa-supported Club NI scheme for elite male teens had already exposed the FAI’s deficiencies and four years on from the Republic crushing the bottom seeds 6-0 over two World Cup qualifiers, the sight of professional players gracing the marquee women’s tournament of 2022 will highlight how equal pay should mark the start, not the end, of the FAI getting this part of their house in order.
Gardner-Hickman’s looming dilemma a throwback to Rice and Grealish snubs
Approaching the third anniversary of Declan Rice’s IreExit, another tug-of-war could be afoot between England and Ireland for a budding star.
Taylor Gardner-Hickman is the rising star of West Bromwich Albion’s side, a first-team regular having just turned 20 and tied down on a new deal till 2026.
Premier League clubs are already hawking the versatile Academy graduate but, ominously for Ireland, so too are the English FA. English-born with a grandmother from Mayo, Gardner-Hickman has yet to represent either country competitively at underage level; his sole international experience being a training camp with Ireland’s U19s in 2019.
It is understood the process of obtaining his Irish passport is well underway and, should clearance be in place, a maiden U21 call-up for the Euro qualifier in Sweden on March 29 is expected.
Still, as we’re all painfully aware from the cases of Rice, and Jack Grealish before him, dual-eligible starlets have worn the green shirt with pride at that level, subsequently exercising their right to switch once England felt they possessed the tools for senior graduation.
Gardner-Hickman has yet to reach that exalted level where decisions are final and he only need to look around his dressing room at the likes of Callum Robinson and Matt Phillips to realise that declaring through ancestry can act as the springboard to a steady international career.
LOI crossbar challenge a winner for Make-A-Wish
League of Ireland stalwart Conan Byrne was synonymous with good causes during his career and he’s continued his charity efforts into retirement. Along with former teammate, Shelbourne goalkeeper Brendan Clarke, they set a fundraising target for the Make-A-Wish Foundation by completing a crossbar challenge at all 19 League of Ireland grounds over a three-day blitz in December.
Signals of goodwill were evident before they even struck a shot from the halfway line at Richmond Park in the opening day by their target being exceeded. Donations continued to flood in over the long weekend as the footballing community united for a charity which grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions.
They were welcomed into each ground visited, receiving replica shirts from most.
This collection, swelled by others such as an Ian Rush signed replica 1984 European Cup final jersey, shirts given by West Brom’s Irish stars Callum Robinson and Dara O’Shea and another from Bolton’s (now St Pat’s) Eoin Doyle, were made available to purchase through a silent auction. The overall sum raised came to just over €26,000. “Make-A-Wish were amazed by the figure we generated when it was all sent over to their accounts department,” said Byrne.
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