- Lifestyle & Sports
- 15 Jun 22
The Women’s National League 2022 season reached its mid-point on June 11, with Shelbourne having opened up an impressive lead over the chasing pack. There’s been drama aplenty, and lots of surprises – and an enthralling second half of the season is in prospect.
I’ll tell you this much for nothing: the Women’s National League is anything but predictable. So far this season, we’ve seen goals rattling in, new young stars announcing themselves, bigger than ever crowds, unexpected results, season-ending injuries, a three-point deduction for a top club, and new title contenders that no one had fancied when the first round of games kicked off back in March.
To further complicate matters, there’s an imminent transfer window that is openly dreaded by just about every club in the league – the widespread paranoia being that some of the emerging bright young talents might be poached by clubs in the UK or further afield. After all, Shelbourne’s flying Irish international winger Jessica Ziu is already set to depart for West Ham – a move that could tilt the balance against the current table-toppers.
It has all combined to make the Women’s National League 2022 season the most enthralling – and the best from a footballing perspective – since its foundation in season 2011-2012.
TRANSFER WINDOW BLUES
Even their most passionate suporters would acknowledge that there was a whiff of good fortune in the air, when Shelbourne sensationally snatched last year’s WNL title on the final day, with league leaders Peamount United imploding dramatically at home to Galway Women’s FC. It was a script that was too strange for fiction – but real life delivered.
Their status as champions notwithstanding, few would have predicted that Shelbourne would shoot out of the proverbial blocks this year, to go seven points clear as we approach the mid-point of the season. The assumption was that last season’s runners-up, Peamount United, would come bouncing back, determined to show Shelbourne – and other potential title contenders like Wexford Youths – just who the top dogs are.
Instead, after 12 matches they sit in fifth place, a whopping 13 points behind Shelbourne – with Wexford, Athlone Town, and Galway Women’s FC above them. For the three-time title winners, it has been a poor season so far.
Did I just mention Athlone Town?
Everyone’s talking about them. Last season, in their second year in the WNL, they finished third from bottom. Currently, they sit third. As I write, they are hot on the heels of second-placed Wexford. Anything can happen, of course, with Galway, in particular, rediscovering their mojo in recent weeks and looking threatening. But, for now, the midlands club look like the success story of the year.
Athlone manager, Tommy Hewitt, will have no truck with talk of being title contenders all the same. For now, he is happy to luxuriate in the fact that, with 22 points on the board, they have already exceeded their total for the whole of last season (19). Notable among the scalps they’ve taken are Peamount (1-0), Galway (3-1), DLR Waves (1-0), Sligo (5-0) and Cork 4-1.
“We had a good run of results before the Peamount game and the confidence that gives can serve you well when you go to places like Greenogue,” Tommy says. “We’re under no illusions. We take every game as it comes. Nobody expected us to be where we are now, but if we finished in third and had a good Cup run, then it would be a very good season.
“We’re seeing progression in the team,” he adds, “but the squad is thin in terms of numbers. It’s a long season, and so we maybe need to strengthen the squad in the transfer window in July.”
One of the key reasons for Athlone’s rapid progress is the emergence of the young, local Leaving Cert student, Emily Corbet, who was rewarded for her performances, with Ireland Under-19 caps in April. A midfielder originally, Emily has been selected up front more recently by Hewitt – with the result that she has already bagged 10 goals, including a special winner against Peamount.
“The extra year’s additional experience has been important for us as a team,” says Emily, “and we’re growing in confidence now. Last season I finished with three goals in total, so it’s a big improvement this season. But that’s because so many of our players are playing better than last year. The supply line to me has been great.”
That supply line is being provided by talented players like Muireann Devaney, Laurie Ryan, Roisín Molly and Jess Hennessy. With Athlone at the geographical centre of Ireland, they have a large catchment area from which to assemble a squad, with players joining from Laois, Offaly, Mullingar, Dublin, Sligo, Mayo and Clare, as well as Athlone itself. Hewitt is not surprised by the emergence of Corbet as one of the top strikers in the WNL.
“She’s been with Athlone since she was 15 or 16,” he explains, “and she’s one of the best finishers in the club. This season, with Gillian Keenan coming in from Treaty, they have complemented each other well. But they know they need to keep the level of their performances high. Emily’s in the under 19s Irish squad. She needs to keep developing now.”
Hewitt believes there has been a big improvement in the standard of the WNL overall.
“The talent pool has gotten bigger,” he says, “and that’s a credit to all the clubs, their academy teams, the local leagues and the regional development squads. The facilities; the refereeing; the addition of fourth officials; the media coverage of the league; the social media sites – the WNL is improving in so many ways. People around Athlone are now talking about the Athlone women’s team.
“Some people might have the idea that the women’s game is not as good as the men’s game,” Tommy adds. “That’s nonsense. The women’s games are so entertaining, the quality of football is brilliant. The standard of the players and the way they acquit themselves on and off the pitch is exceptional. They are a credit to the league and also great examples to kids and younger players.”
Hewitt observes that the FAI have played their part.
“They’ve been great,” he admits, “and are very open to suggestions to improve things. Mark Scanlon (Director of both the men’s and women’s leagues for the FAI) goes to games whenever he can. He’s been very supportive. However, I really believe the league has to go semi-professional. We are haemorrhaging our best players ‘across the water’. Obviously, some will want to go away for the experience, but we should aim to keep the best players here, and make the league better and better.”
Hewitt is not looking forward to the upcoming transfer window, from July 1 to 31.
“You’re just dreading when the phone rings, because it could be one of the players saying that some other club has come in for them. And that affects not just their current team-mates and fans, but all the background team who have put work in over the weeks, months and years with them. When one of the key players goes, it can knock the stuffing out of some of the others. I think I’ll sleep for the whole month of July to avoid it all (laughs)!”
Hewitt’s transfer window fears are echoed by Cork City’s Chief Operating Officer, Eanna Buckley. The team is currently manager-less and sit second from bottom – exactly where they finished last season.
“The big challenge for us is the number of players we have lost over the past two or three years,” Buckley explains. “Last year we had three or four players move to the States on scholarships, Saoirse Noonan went to Shelbourne, and so on. We have the talent coming through, but holding on to that talent is a real issue.
“Things are at a bit of a crossroads in the women’s game here. While there are a lot of positive things happening in the WNL, there are also negatives which must be addressed – and the contracts situation is one of those. It doesn’t happen in the men’s game, where all the parties to a transfer can gain something, but in the women’s game you can put all that time and energy and money into developing a player and they can just go, and the club won’t get a bean.
“That has to change. It’s not all about money, of course, but you could argue that there is an official regulatory disincentive to invest on one side of the club as opposed to the other, and that’s not right. The benefits of changing that would also trickle down to the local league teams that initially develop these players, so it’d have a positive impact at grassroots level.”
Cork, who won the Cup as recently as 2017 and finished fourth in the WNL in 2020, also had a record crowd for a women’s home game last season (1,007). This season, they’ve taken some bad beatings from Shelbourne (7-0), Peamount (8-0), Wexford (5-1), DLR Waves (6-0) and Athlone (4-1). They had an interim manager (Paul Farrell) who became full-time manager and then parted ways with the club. Meanwhile, Cork received a lot of negative publicity around the lack of appropriate training facilities for their WNL squad.
While that was a bit of a public relations disaster, Buckley is keen to clarify that it’s more complicated than might have seemed.
“Training facilities is something we struggle with right across the club,” he explains. “The senior men’s Cork City team trains in the morning and so don’t need floodlights. However, we have four boys’ academy teams and two girls’ academy teams, plus the women’s WNL senior team, all of whom are training in the evening and require floodlights for a few months of the year. That’s where the problem was.
“Cork City Council did an audit recently and found a massive shortage of flood-lit facilities across the city. But we are working to fix the situation for the short, medium and long terms.”
Only a very young and inexperienced Treaty United – who sit bottom of the table with a goal difference of minus 37 after 12 games – are behind Cork.
“People can focus on the table,” says Buckley, “but I’d like us to become more competitive, and losing narrowly recently to a good team like Wexford 2-1 does offer hope. Improved performances increase confidence and generate support. If we climb a few places in the league table, brilliant, but what I really want out of this season now is for our younger players to gain experience and confidence, and to carry that into next season. If we put five across the back and never crossed the half-way line and dug-in for a 0-0 draws for the rest of the season, then the team is not going to learn from that.”
In their inaugural season in the WNL, Sligo Rovers are another WNL good news story.
Currently sitting eighth in the table, they were involved in one of the pivotal matches of the season, being awarded a three-goal win after Peamount were ruled to have fielded an ineligible player when they clashed. Sligo have also had a few creditable narrow one-goal defeats to much more experienced sides like Shelbourne (1-0), Galway (2-1) and DLR Waves (3-2). It’s been a very encouraging start for the WNL debutants.
“If someone had offered us the points and the position we are in now, at the start of the season, we’d have jumped at it,” says Sligo manager Steve Feeney. “We’re all new to the WNL. Some of the players have adjusted really well and have shown this is a level they can play at. It’s also great for players from places like Sligo, Donegal and Mayo to see that they can perform in this league.
“We have a great atmosphere in the squad. The club has put a lot of work in, to get us to the WNL. Now, we aim to kick on and make the most of the season.”
Athlone Town showed how it can be done.
“Nearly three years ago,” Tommy Hewitt says, “the goal was to join the WNL and the club started by developing an under-15s girls’ team, then 16s, 17s. That was really important when we entered the WNL. The club has been fantastic in terms of training facilities, training gear, meals for the players after games, and so on. It was important for me as the manager that the girls got treated equally, if not better, than the men’s teams. Obviously, the lads are semi-professional and the girls aren’t yet, but, hopefully, that will happen down the line.
“My assistant manager Anto Fay looks after under-17s and they’re doing fantastic this season. Our under-19s are doing great as well. We’re developing players in the right way. And it’s very pleasing that the girls realise we are trying to build something here.”
Sligo’s Steve Feeney feels the whole league is very competitive.
“Teams seem to be making a special effort not to concede goals easily,” he says. “Certain individual players can make the difference but, in general, it’s a much more competitive league. It’s also getting a lot more attention, more media coverage, more promotion. The national team is also doing very well, with a number of home-based players in the squad.”
The experienced Bohemians striker, Sinead Taylor, also sees a big improvement.
“It’s great to see the game being promoted now,” she says. “Even when we get in the car after a match, radio stations have the WNL scores, which didn’t happen in the past. When I started playing in the league a few years ago, you wouldn’t get reports of matches. It’s great to see the progression – but we still have a long way to go.”
Bohs, under the experienced team of FAI ETB coach Sean Byrne and his Assistant Manager Pat Trehy, are currently sitting just above Sligo in seventh place. They are a much more difficult proposition to beat this season, and have notably held Peamount (1-1), defeated Peamount (2-1) in the return fixture, and held Galway and Athlone to 1-1 draws. But for a lack of luck on the day, they’d also have taken points from the leaders, Shels.
In her WNL career, prior to Bohs Sinéad played with Galway, Peamount, Shelbourne and Wexford.
“Many clubs are trying to develop players from within, with under-17 squads and so on, which is good to see. What I like about Bohs is the sense of community around the club. The bar is open, the food vans are open, which makes it more attractive, especially for families. Not every club has that yet.”
Sinead is cautious about the prospect of a semi-professional WNL.
“Going professional has to be sustainable,” she insists, “because you don’t want clubs or teams going bankrupt. But if it keeps developing, that’d be great.”
THE ENTERTAINMENT GOES ON
Either way, the entertainment goes on. The upcoming mid-season short break from June 11, is followed by the transfer window opening for the month of July. Another unforeseen complication will be the Leaving Certificate exams, with Wexford’s hotshot midfielder, Ellen Molloy, and Athlone’s in-form striker Emily Corbet, being affected.
Few are predicting a dramatic final-day scenario like last season. Shelbourne are looking extremely strong and have conceded just one goal (a brilliant opportunist strike by Katie Malone in their one defeat this season, to DLR Waves) in twelve games. Shels’ recent 1-0 win over Peamount at Tolka Park was more assured than the scoreline suggests.
To some, Peamount look a ‘busted flush’ already – there’s a feeling out there that they need to rebuild and/or acquire fresh legs in the transfer window.
Galway, who cruelly lost their captain and formidable centre-back presence, Ireland international Savannah McCarthy, in only the third match of the season to a bad ACL injury, are on a decent run after a patchy start to the season, with players like Julie-Ann Russell, Jenna Slattery, Emma Starr and Becky Walsh driving them on. They couldyet play their way into contention.
DLR Waves, who have beaten Shels this season, suffer from a similar curse of inconsistency as Galway.
So, are Shelbourne likely to ‘run away with it’? With Jessica Ziu and Saoirse Noonan set to leave for the English Women’s Super League in July, they’ll be weakened. But rival cubs might also lose talent to overseas professional leagues in England and Scotland, or to soccer scholarships in the USA.
On the other hand, with the prospect of playing in the European Champions League this summer to dangle in front of the league’s brightest playing prospects, the Tolka Park Reds might steal more than just a march on their WNL opponents.
Either way, Shels have been very impressive, rattling in 32 goals in their first 12 games. And with a bench that looks almost as strong as their first 11, manager Noel King has the luxury of judicious (if sometimes questionable) squad rotation.
Can they be caught? If last season’s unexpected final day dramatics tell us anything, it’s that it ain’t over till it’s over. Watch this space.
Read more of our Women's National League coverage – including our interview with Finglas native and Ireland international Jessica Ziu – in the current issue of Hot Press, out now:
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