- Lifestyle & Sports
- 03 Mar 22
Last season’s SSE Airtricity Women’s National League ended in high drama, with the title being stolen from under the noses of serial winners, Peamount United, by Shelbourne. With standards vastly improving and a new competitive edge, the 2022 follow-up promises to be the most combative in the history of domestic women’s senior football. Paul O’Mahony sets the scene, offering a warning: ‘Expect fireworks!’ Photography: Miguel Ruiz, Grace McNamara, Paul O’Mahony
Last season, the Women’s National League reached an absolutely thrilling climax. Even with the two key matches scheduled to run simultaneously, no one would have predicted the high drama that ensued. The reigning champions, Peamount United were out in front. Their destiny was in their own hands. And they were at home to Galway United. The title, more or less everyone assumed, was theirs already.
In the event, the west Dublin outfit – aristocrats of the women’s game in Ireland – were sensationally dismantled on their own turf by Galway Women’s FC. Shelbourne, meanwhile, had to battle their collective inner demons before eventually prevailing against Wexford Youths, in Tolka Park – thus snatching the league title at the last gasp.
That extraordinary outcome – with Peamount feeling wasted and wounded, and fully aware of the fact that they had blown it royally – has left a heavy scent of potential retribution in the air and, with it, a great sense of anticipation for the 2022 season.
It is going to be a good one…
It was, indisputably, one of those magic moments that only sport can deliver.
“When we went 4-2 up in that final game,” says formidable Galway and Republic of Ireland centre-back, Savannah McCarthy, “I saw two people running around the pitch with the trophy and hopping into a taxi!”
On the day, the cup – destined to end up in the League winners trophy cabinet – had to make a hasty exit! It must have been a hell of a taxi ride from Peamount’s Greenogue ground, in Newcastle, Co. Dublin, across to Tolka Park, so that the trophy could be presented to Shelbourne – who had just about held on, to defeat Wexford Youths FC 3-2, to take advantage of ‘Peas’ slip-up. Wexford had added to the cliff-hanger nature of proceedings by driving at the Shelbourne defence consistently, throughout the final 20 minutes of that match. They were inches away from scuppering the Shels party on more than one occasion. But, in the end, the Reds were not to be denied.
Wexford’s highly talented teenage midfielder, Ellen Molloy, explains their eagerness to take the game to Shels in that second half.
“We were disappointed about the league ourselves,” she recalls, “because we lost to Galway near the end, which put us out of the running. We didn’t realise how significant that was until Shelbourne ended up winning the league on that last day.
“From my own point of view, going into the final day’s games, the league was out of our hands – so in that last match against Shels, I was aiming mainly to set up Kylie (Murphy, Wexford striker)) to score more goals, for her to win the Golden Boot! We had a bad first half, and so we were trying to make up for it, pushing for the goals. Pearl Slattery (Shels captain and centre back) was telling Kylie and me to stop (laughs)!”
The Shelbourne captain confirms that Shels had a serious dose of the jitters when the picture became clear to her and her teammates, that they could actually win this goddam thing!
“At half-time, people were kind of afraid to ask what was happening in the Peamount-Galway game, but we found out it was 2-2 there,” Pearl recalls.
The expectation was still that Peamount would likely have enough in reserve to seize the day.
“We just had to focus on winning our own game,” Pearl adds, “and whatever happened in the other game was going to happen. Then our supporters were getting louder and louder! They were hearing that Galway were winning and I was on the pitch asking, ‘What’s going’ on?!’”
The unthinkable, that’s what. Well, from a Peamount perspective. Mind you it nearly applied to Shels as well…
“We were three up, but Wexford got two back against us, and during the last five or ten minutes I was telling the girls to stay calm – but even my own legs were buckling! Those last few minutes we were just kicking the ball out of play! I was even talking to the Wexford players, asking them to stop attacking (laughs)! I’ll never forget it, when that final whistle blew! We wanted that title so bad!”
Other teams were also caught up in the drama. DLR Waves had, in effect, set the final day theatrics in motion by holding Peamount to a draw in the penultimate game of the season. You could say that it was all down to a superb performance by their goalkeeper, Eve Badana.
“We had played Treaty United earlier that day in Limerick,” DLR striker Katie Malone recalls, of the final shemozzles. “So, we were on the way home to Dublin on the bus and were able to watch it on TG4. We all had our phones out streaming it! When Galway brought it back to 2-2 we were going mad, there was so much excitement! If I’m honest, I wanted Peamount to win the league that day, but it was a great match for the league. Galway are really pushing on every year. It was a great end, to a great season.”
With their title hopes going up in smoke, Peamount’s dressing-room must have been a grim place after that last game. What did they do after all was said and done?
“It was hard to comprehend what happened and to digest it,” explains Aine O’Gorman, Peamount captain and Ireland international, who was top scorer in the WNL last season. “All you want to do is go home. You’re not in the mood to do anything – but it was important to stick together, so we went out that evening. If you win together, you have to lose together. It was still difficult to put it behind us. I think everyone was a bit shocked. It was in our hands and we let it slip, so it’s important that we learn from that.”
A LOT OF DEMANDS
Last season, it became obvious to keen observers and players alike that the SSE Airtricity Women’s National League was no longer just about Peamount United, Shelbourne and Wexford Youths. Both Galway and DLR Waves – a relatively new club from Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, in South Dublin – have come on in leaps and bounds. They may not be ready to capture the honours yet – we’ll see! – but they are certainly playing a vital part in making the league more competitive and exciting.
“The players are a lot better now,” says Savannah McCarthy. “There’s a lot of good strikers around the league. You can see that in the players that are called up to the international squad. I love the bit of competition, a bit of a fight. That only benefits me and I’m sure it benefits the team as well.”
The new season kicks off on Saturday, March 5, and you can take it as read that DLR Waves and Galway, in particular, will be keen to break up the dominance of the so-called ‘Top Three’.
Savannah McCarthy is certainly thinking that way.
“We went down to Wexford and won last season as well, so it’s about consistency,” she observes. “We have a lot of young players. For that final game against Peamount, all the pressure was on them, not on us. We were a bit nervous to start with and went two nil down. I said to the girls, ‘Let’s go and play. We’ve no pressure, so let’s show people what we can do’. It was a great result. I think a lot more teams will be looking at us warily this coming season.”
Alan Murphy, Galway’s new Manager, agrees.
“We’ve been trying to bring more intensity to training and to games,” he confirms. “In that Peamount game, there was a definite shift in intensity, in momentum. We want the girls to take the performance levels in that game forward. In a nutshell, that’s what we will be trying to do.”
For their part, DLR Waves are also up for the challenge.
“Our target was to finish in the top four last year,” DLR Waves Manager, Graham Kelly, says. “So we can say it was a successful season from that point of view. Now, we want to try and get closer to the top three teams. It won’t come easy, but in the games we played against them last year we ran them close. We drew with Peamount and Wexford but, unfortunately Shels beat us. We’re a young side, but our aim has to be to compete with those three teams.”
Taking occasional points off the top three is one thing, but being genuine contenders requires a bigger squad.
“Obviously, scouting is important, to get new players in and freshen up the group,” says Alan Murphy. “But looking within, you can get better organised. That’s not a negative. I hope I can bring a bit of freshness. It’s not a huge change that’s required, but change is needed if we want to start winning things. And maybe a different emphasis, in how we prepare, and the ambition we have. We have some new players in already, and more in the pipeline. We’re going well in pre-season training, but we must try to make the right decisions. For instance, if we are selecting some players from the under-19s squad for a game, we don’t want to be leaving that team short for their games either. It’s a balancing act.”
DLR’s Graham Kelly is of a similar mind to Murphy.
“We want to run things as professionally as we can and to do that we have to look after the players,” he says. “We do know clubs in the league that are paying players now but, at the moment, we’re not in a position to do that. What we can do is look after the players, with the best of training kit and good facilities. We’ll help them in any way we can.”
“Our squad is also quite young,” Graham adds. “We’ve one or two players with a lot of experience, which is great, but we’re trying to bring younger players, like Katie Malone, in and to develop them. I’ve seen her progress massively over the time she’s been with us. And likewise with so many other players in the club. We’re trying to develop them as people and as players.
“When we are recruiting players, we’re not just looking at ability, but also how they’ll fit in as personalities with the group, which is really important for us,” he says. “We put a lot of demands on the players – even the off-season programme was really intense. And now they’re back in pre-season training and they’re looking really good and really sharp. I think we can compete with the top teams because the players are getting used to how we want to play.”
If there’s a top of the table, there’s also – inevitably – a bottom. Last season, Treaty United of Limerick finished last. With fewer resources than the top clubs, their new Manager, Don O’Riordan – one of the most experienced coaches in Ireland – is under no illusions. But he is determined to make a difference.
“Since I joined the club in the off-season,” he explains, “I’ve been talking to players and trying to show them – and their parents in some cases – how we are doing things now. There’s players in the squad that got hammerings by other teams last year, but they weren’t as bad as some of those results suggested. We can build around some of those players.
“I’ve been very impressed with our under 17s squad and how they’ve trained and play football. The under 19s, too. Some of these girls will be heavily involved in our League squad this season. Age doesn’t matter. If you’re good enough, you’ll play in my team. I haven’t gone down the loan-signing route so much, because I want to give as many Limerick players as I can a chance. I think that is important, creating a sense of belonging with the club and the city and county.
“It’s a new club and we have a new canvas now. We’re aiming to be a team that is fit, presses well and is hard to beat. To be fair, the players have been great. They’ve been working really hard in pre-season, as have the rest of the coaching team.”
Bohemians (6th), Athlone (7th) and Cork City (8th) will also be looking to improve on last year. In addition – in what is a major boon for the WNL – under Manager Steve Feeney, Sligo Rovers have entered for the first time this season, bringing the division to ten teams.
Looking further into the future, Shamrock Rovers will be adding a team to the SSE Airtricity Women’s National League next season. One of the original founding members of the WNL, Rovers subsequently opted out of the senior level, but maintained their underage teams. The club have been working towards the return of their senior team to the WNL on a more organic model. They will be an enormously welcome addition to the 2023 league.
All of this is great news for the WNL, potentially making it an even more attractive proposition as entertainment. Which also means that – finally – there will be revenue coming in.
In 2019, I remember going to Tolka Park and seeing just 50 people at Shelbourne’s WNL games. Last season, lockdown-free games were attracting between 300 and 600 spectators. The Evoke.ie FAI Women’s Cup final, held in Tallaght Stadium, attracted a record crowd of over 3,000. TG4 and LOI TV have been showing live WNL games, and RTÉ 2 covered the aforementioned Cup final between victors Wexford Youths and Shelbourne.
“TG4 and LOI TV coming in is great,” Shelbourne captain Pearl Slattery – who also works in the FAI as a programme co-ordinator for women’s football at a grassroots level – observes. “Similarly with sponsors like SSE Airtricity and others. But the next big question is: can other clubs get more people to come to their games?”
That is the proverbial $60-thousand question…
“Last year was such an exciting year for us at Shels – not just winning the title but there were really exciting games and unbelievable goals, and the fans started coming in numbers. The really strong promotion of the league and the broadcast coverage made a big difference. There’s a great respect for women’s football now at every level of the FAI.
“For the Cup semi-final against Galway, we had a big crowd – we even had the ultras, that go to the men’s games, coming to the Cup final as well. Girls from other clubs have been coming along to watch, too. It’s brilliant, so hopefully it can continue to grow this coming season.”
In terms of exposure, Rónán Ó Coisdealbha, Head of Sport at TG4, is delighted with the success of their live coverage of the Women’s National League, which began late last season under the title Sacar Beo (which is Irish for ‘Live Soccer’)..
“In what was an incredible year for Mná na hÉireann in sport,” Rónán said, “TG4 was delighted to bring SSE Airtricity Women’s National League to Irish television audiences for the very first time. From the brilliant first goal scored by Alex Kavanagh for Shelbourne FC against DLR Waves, to the nail-biting drama of the final night, which saw Shelbourne become the 2021 Champions – the WNL had everything.
“Sacar Beo will be showing more games from the WNL in 2022. TG4 couldn’t be prouder to be bringing the excitement of women’s football to increasingly enthusiastic audiences and looks forward to the next step in the journey with the FAI and the League of Ireland.”
Live coverage of the league also rubs off on the players.
“I think LOI TV coming in last year was huge,” says DLR’s Katie Malone. “And then TG4 – it creates a completely different atmosphere. I remember the first TG4 match, Shels and ourselves at Tolka Park, and we were in the dressing-room and the buzz was amazing.”
RTÉ2’s coverage of the Evoke.ie FAI Women’s Cup Final also achieved high viewing figures.
Manager of Cup winners Wexford Youths, Stephen Quinn, encapsulates the feelings of many…
“The clubs have done great work, and the FAI, with sponsorships and promotion,” he says. “So many people I know, who have no interest in football – but who saw the Cup final – were congratulating me on how good it was and saying that they were going to look at it more this season. Even if TV coverage raises the profile ten per cent year on year, where will the game be in five years? Over the past ten years, the development has been massive, so where’s it going to be in another ten?”
With a record-breaking season just about to kick-off, we can expect fireworks! The only way is up...
Women's National League: Ireland's Five Shooting Stars
Which five players are most likely to light up the Women’s National League this year, with the touches of genius that can make all the difference to a campaign? Paul O’Mahony identifies the top five Ones To Watch.
Alex Kavanagh – Midfielder, Shelbourne FC
A big season for the mercurial 22 year-old midfielder, who comes from a footballing family, with her father George and brother Cian both having played successfully at League of Ireland level. She was out for six months last season with an MCL knee injury, followed by a heavy dose of Covid. “I’m definitely fully over the Covid,” she says, “but I was quite bad, as were other members of my family. When I first came back to playing, I felt awful. The more running I did, the more tired I got. But I was delighted to be able to get going properly again late in the season.” Given her calm attitude, and astute positioning, it’s no surprise that Kavanagh namechecks Zinedine Zidane as her favourite player. That influence is evident in her measured, defence-splitting passes and an ability to deliver game-changing goals – as with her audacious, and elegant, chipped goal from outside the box last season, that went over the entire DLR Waves defence and the keeper, into the top left-hand corner. Shels have lost Saoirse Noonan and Ciara Grant, who bagged 17 goals between them last season, so how Alex combines with teenage striker Abbie Larkin will be crucial. An Irish international at just 16, Alex will also hope to get back in the international frame this year.
Ellen Molloy – Midfielder, Wexford Youths FC
A precocious talent, who’s already been called up to the Ireland senior squad at just 17 years of age, Ellen Molloy has the ability to set the league alight. Molloy’s second half performance for Wexford Youths in the Evoke.ie Cup final last season – televised live by RTÉ2 and played before a record crowd for a women’s game in Tallaght Stadium – will have won her even more admirers. She and her teammate, Aoibheann Clancy, make up the Talented Teenagers or the Terror Twins, depending on which side you’re supporting. Threading balls through to Kylie Murphy, who was the league’s second top scorer last season with 16 goals, is like fun-time for the Wexford duo. As to her favourite player, Molloy says: “Messi. Since I was young, I’ve always tried to mimic his playing style. I watch players like Marta Silva of Brazil and Kim Little of Arsenal more now, but before nearly every game, I’d still watch clips of Messi.” As George Hamilton might say, “Danger here!”
Emma Starr – Midfielder, Galway Women’s FC
TG4’s Player of the Match in the 2021 season’s sensational finale, Emma Starr scored the crucial goal that kick-started Galway’s remarkable 5-2 victory over Peamount – thus dramatically presenting the title to Shelbourne. The American’s distinctive blonde top-knot hair-bun and quick stride make her instantly identifiable on the pitch. Always available to take the ball from defence and initiate attacks, on her day she can terrorise the opposition, combining relentless energy with footballing nous. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: she covers so much ground that there should be a fans’ song called ‘There’s Only Two Emma Starrs!’ “I really focus on my mobility,” she says. “By drawing opposition players, it creates space and opportunities, whether for myself or for my teammates. Especially when I was younger, I was quite small, so I had to find ways other than physical aggressiveness to make an impact – so I worked a lot of my technical ability and my fitness.” Now you see her, now you don’t!
Áine O’Gorman – Striker, Peamount United
Winner of the Evoke.ie 2021 WNL Top Goalscorer Award last season, Áine O’Gorman is an experienced Ireland international, having served her country well at underage and senior levels. A woman of substance, she has also captained club and country and been a key activist for improved conditions and standards in Irish women’s football. In 2022, she’ll take particular pleasure if she can exact retribution for Shelbourne manager Noel King’s unnecessary taunting of her on television over Peamount’s concession of the title last season. “We’re more determined to succeed than ever,” she says. “We’ve a few new additions to the squad as well, so we have a good mix now of youth and experience. Last season still hurts but we’ll use that as motivation.” The league’s top scorer is chomping at the bit, ready to bring the Goalden Days back to Greenogue this season. As they say, revenge is a dish best served cold.
Katie Malone – Striker, DLR Waves
Katie Malone is one of an impressive six-pack of DLR Waves players who are part of the Ireland coaching team’s monthly sessions, run exclusively for promising home-based players. Malone has a great grá for the game. “I did play hockey and basketball for a few years,” she explains, “but all I really wanted to do was play football. There were never any female soccer team playing when I grew up and because of that I know a lot of people who dropped out of the sport. So I guess I’m lucky that I had that determination to continue playing the game.” Now, she might have added, the sky’s the limit. Malone will be hungry for goals this season to help DLR Waves break into the top three in the league. The hope is that she will move even closer to fulfilling her abundant potential in 2022, with a developing international career in mind.
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