Peamount United manager James O’Callaghan has urged the FAI to step up its funding to the Women’s National League to keep the best players in Ireland.
The National League has seen an exodus of top talent like Rianna Jarrett and Leanne Kiernan to the professional league in England over the past few years.
And the back-to-back title winners lost their star defender Niamh Farrelly to the lure of professional football with Glasgow City in Scotland.
The Peas took Glasgow all the way to penalties on foreign soil in the Champions League in November but the Clyde-based club can offer opportunities clubs here cannot.
There was surprise when Aine O’Gorman, Peamount captain and 100-plus-capped international, revealed that all players in the league need sponsors to cover subs in the elite league.
That’s the reality for top-level footballers among 50% of our population but, thankfully, in 2020 and 2021, the FAI has covered those dues to allow players to play.
O’Callaghan reckons the days of pay-for-play are behind us due to the association’s increased focus on domestic football, but the aim should be to eventually have professional football at home.
“Ultimately, I think the league needs to go semi-professional with a plan to go professional in order to keep all the best players in the country,” O’Callaghan told the Dublin Gazette.
“Another player went there from Shelbourne yesterday to Celtic, Izzy [Atkinson], and it’s great for those players in one sense.
“They’re getting to play professional but it’s not good for the league to be losing these players. I think there’s improvements, last season and this season, with increased funding.
“But we do need to get to a stage where we can go have a task group set up to look into what it’s going to take to get to a semi-professional level.
“Because you do want to be keeping all the best players in the country, so the younger players can see what it takes on a week-to-week basis.”
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There have been positive developments in recent weeks as SSE Airtricity has expanded its sponsorship of the men’s league to encompass the women’s as well.
A new associate sponsor, Bank of Ireland, has also come on board to support both genders for the first time, though with games behind closed doors it’s uncertain if this represents an overall increase in sponsorship from previous years.
Nevertheless, O’Callaghan sees hope in the future from what was a pretty grim prognosis when he took the senior manager’s role five years ago.
“At the very start, the support for the girls was really, really poor.
“They’re putting all the same efforts in as their male counterparts, they work really hard, but the rewards they get are very little.
“This season, no players will have to be expected to pay for anything. I’d like to think that’s a start, but it’s coming from a very low base so these improvements need to continue.
“I’d like to see the conversation now go towards semi-professional. We’ve got to move forward though and think things are on the horizon now so the only way is up.
“I’d like to see promotion of the game improve in terms of getting a highlights package, more games on TV, be able to pick up a newspaper and see Women’s National League reports, because you don’t see that.”