- Lifestyle & Sports
- 12 Sep 23
What a long strange journey it’s been for women’s football in Ireland. But the sport is finally getting the recognition it deserves – at both international and local level. The Women’s National League is buzzing, with last year’s winners Shelbourne currently in second place behind Peamount. It is a sign of the changing times that Shels have added some serious recruits from abroad, including Christie Gray from Canada and Maggie Pierce from the USA.
Spain deserved to win the Women’s World Cup, their momentous victory over England in a memorable final bringing the curtain down on what had been a wonderful global showcase for women’s football.
As a result of the success of the tournament, and Ireland’s participation in it, interest in the domestic game is likely to strengthen considerably here. Attendances have been good at league games. Underage football is blooming. Can that forward momentum be maintained?
Since they won their second league title on the trot last December, Shelbourne have lost a number of key players – both to new women’s league arch-rivals Shamrock Rovers, and to West Ham in England, who snapped up the talented youngster and Ireland international, Jessie Stapleton, having already secured the services of the highly talented Ireland international, Jess Ziu, from Shels last season.
In response, Shelbourne added a number of international players from the USA and Canada to their squad at the start of the season – and another four, more recently, from the USA, Denmark and Uganda…
Those additions weren’t enough for them to conquer the might of Glasgow City, in their opening group match, in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, played in Lithuania last week, when the full-time professional status of the City players told in the end, in terms of fitness and intensity. But they went on to beat Cardiff City 3-0 in their group's third place play-off. After that impressive performance, the team returned to Dublin with their pride intact.
HEART AND PASSION
Maggie Pierce is from North Carolina, USA. Clearly an accomplished ballplayer, she started the Women’s National League (also known as the League of Ireland Women’s Premier Division) season at right-back where she excelled for several weeks. Subsequently, she has featured at centre-back or centre-midfield, and you can see that she loves to be in the thick of things, getting stuck in and making her presence felt.
Christie Gray, from Vancouver, Canada, is a versatile winger with a combative attitude. She has more than held her own so far when elbows fly as she takes on hardy defenders. Both players have already proven excellent additions to the Shels squad.
“When deciding to come to Ireland and play with Shels, the prospect of playing in the WNL was exciting,” says Christie Gray, “but there was also the President’s Cup in pre-season, the new All-Island Cup and the FAI Cup. But to play in the Champions League was kind of like a childhood dream come true.”
What did Maggie and Christie think of Ireland’s performance at the World Cup?
“I think they did an impressive job,” says Christie. “They played Canada and made our lives difficult, especially in that first half and, at times, they made us look silly. For a country so small, Ireland don’t make anyone’s lives easy. I think it would have been nice if they had more representation from the WNL in the squad, as there are players of high quality in the league.
“It’s good that there is the Home-based Squad system,” she adds, “and Vera Pauw has attended WNL games, so they are keeping an eye on the WNL. I think it will allow the national squad to get stronger and stronger. At the end of the day, you’re competing against countries like the USA with 330 million people and Canada with 40 million people. Ireland play with heart and passion – you can see it on and off the field. But as the WNL gets stronger, that will be reflected in the national squad.”
“I agree,” Maggie says. “I was impressed with Ireland. I think since we’ve been here, we’ve become big Ireland fans and are getting to know the players and so on, and the girls we play with talk about it a lot and we sometimes watch matches together as a group of players. I think we also have to give Ireland credit – it was their first time playing on a stage that big. That experience will stand to them and I think they will qualify for tournaments again and will be reinforced by younger players and players from the WNL.”
Maggie Pierce, Christie Gray and their fellow ‘imports’ at Shelbourne arrive at an interesting time for the WNL and women’s football here generally. Ireland is starting to embrace professionalism in women’s soccer, and they are part of this exciting growth phase, as were the likes of the USA’s Heather O’Reilly and Emma Starr last year.
“I think the progression of the league here, over the past few years, has been huge,” says Christie. “And the momentum of Ireland qualifying for the World Cup really kicked things into gear and has brought a lot of focus on women’s football and the Women’s National League. It’s been great and really cool to be part of that. What the FAI have been doing with partnerships – like live matches on TG4 and on LOITV, with fans and families and coaches able to watch the games wherever they are – has been great.
“Visibility has always been key to the development of women’s sport and Ireland trying to tackle that head-on is very important. Also, the fact that the Women’s Super League, the gold standard in women’s football, is nearby in England means there is a lot we can learn from what they are going. And it’s great here, too, that players know each other so well, and are chatting about the game and so on. Ireland is heading in the right direction. In a few years we’re really going to see a shift in quality. Standards are higher in countries where there has been years of investment and development by federations in the women’s game –we see that in England, in France, in Spain. So it’s going to get better and better here.”
— Shelbourne FC (@shelsfc) September 9, 2023
Maggie likes to think the involvement of international players will help in that process.
“It’s an interesting time here,” she observes. “I think we might look back on it 20 years from now – when we’ve retired! – and see how much the league has grown and know we might have helped the league in some way. That would be awesome. I can’t compare the teams with last year’s competition, but the standard is great and there’s good competition and I think it will continue to evolve each year. I think that players moving between clubs and bringing in international players as well raises that standard.”
Playing soccer from the age of four, Maggie’s route to Shelbourne involved a connection with a USA World Cup winner who played at Shelbourne last season.
“Having graduated from the University of North Carolina last December, I was looking at my options, and looking to find an agent. The coaches at college had connections overseas so they set up a trial at the club Fortuna Hjorring in Denmark for me, and two of my teammates who had also just graduated. They ended up staying there, but I didn’t feel it was the right fit for me at that time.”
Heather O’Reilly – the USA World Cup winning player who played with Shelbourne last year – had a hand in pointing Maggie towards Dublin.
“While I was still there,” Maggie recounts, “Heather had texted me and she told me about Shelbourne in Ireland and suggested I might go there and see how I like it. Heather was one of our assistant coaches at university. She’s awesome and we keep in touch every once in a while, so she put me in touch with Noel King, the Shelbourne manager. We chatted, and I booked my flight over.
“We didn’t have training for the first few days I was here and so I was just exploring downtown Dublin. I was really enjoying that and I kinda made up my mind that if they wanted me, I’d stay. There were a few other international players here at the time and they asked us to stay and we all said, ‘Yes’!”
Christie Gray developed her interest in soccer in an unusual way.
“I’d play soccer with the boys on the gravel field during recess – that’s how I gravitated to the game,” she laughs.
As a student at Queen’s University, just over the border from New York state, she came under the influence of a female coach who was encouraging and inspiring.
“She had played for the national team in Canada,” she recalls, “and kept telling me to keep going. I had male coaches, too, but she was definitely the biggest influence.”
A NEW CHALLENGE
It wasn’t all plain sailing for Christie!
“There’s no professional women’s league in Canada, so I went to watch the men’s teams when I was growing up – teams like the Vancouver White Caps in the MLS, an American league which has a couple of franchises in Canada. Then, in 2015, we hosted the Women’s World Cup in Vancouver and that was the first time I had really gone and watched women play. It was the coolest experience ever.
“In my third year in university, I went to France to study and trained with Bordeaux for about three months and that was my first exposure to the professional women’s game. Although I was still in university and had my studies to finish, I realised there was a whole world of professional women’s football out there.
“That was the turning point. I had no pro option in Canada. It didn’t – and still doesn’t – have a professional women’s league. I think our federation, Canada Soccer, has been lacking for years and, in my opinion, they have let down both the women’s and the men’s programmes, – but most specifically women’s soccer. You saw what happened in the World Cup.”
Canada beat Ireland 2-1 but they also exited the tournament in the group stage.
“You can’t point fingers entirely,” she adds, “but I think our infrastructure has been letting down the development of our national team for years. Not a single player in the Canada squad plays at home professionally because we don’t have a league. So going to France really did open my eyes in terms of the possibilities of professional football.”
It was through football contacts that Christie ended up playing first in Sweden and, then, Dublin.
“Coming to Ireland, I was open to and excited by a new challenge. I’m glad it all worked out as I'm very, very happy here,” she says.
What did Maggie think of the USA’s performance in the recent World Cup?
“The USA have been a great team,” Maggie says, “and not to make any excuses, but I think some of the injuries hurt us. And we left some big players out of the tournament and had to come up with a new squad. I think they looked a little flat, almost like they expected to win their games.”
“I think Canada looked ‘off’ from the start,” says Christie. “They could have done with a few players who didn’t make this squad, a few strikers and midfielders who would have made a difference. We’ve done well for so long, but I think we’ve reached a point where the gaps are closing between countries. You could see countries like Morocco and Columbia coming through. The growth in the women’s game is accelerating all over the world and it’s exciting to see, so hopefully we can adjust. The introduction of a professional league in Canada in 2025 will hopefully go well.
“It’s a shame it’s taken so long, but you gotta start somewhere.”
Back in Ireland, with just a handful of games left to play in the Women’s National League, Peamount United lead the way, nine points clear of both Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers, both of whom have a game in hand. Shelbourne are determined to rein in Peamount and retain the title they have won for the last two years. But, first, they play an FAI Cup Quarter-Final against DLR Waves. Can they still capture a trophy again this year – or even do the double again?
“Obviously, we wanted to come out of the Champions League with a maximum two wins in our group, but we are proud of our overall performance,” Maggie says. “I think ending with that win over Cardiff City will propel us into a successful Women’s FAI Cup run now. And we believe the league title is still within reach. As Shelbourne have proved over the last two seasons, in particular, we never give up!”
— Shelbourne FC (@shelsfc) September 7, 2023
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 29 Feb 24
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 21 Feb 24