Clarke upbeat as Glentoran Belfast United exit Women's Champions League
Glentoran Belfast United coach Billy Clarke has hailed this week's UEFA Women's Champions League fixtures as a great learning experience for the Northern Irish champions, even though they didn't qualify for the next stage.
With women's football under the spotlight like never before, the Glens were keen to perform well in their Champions League Qualifying group with Greek side PAOK, Macedonia team Dragon and Bulgarian club NSK Sofia all in Belfast for the week.
While much has been written and said about the state of the women's game in England, the Northern Irish equivalent is still relatively under-exposed.
Glentoran coach Clarke believes the game in Ulster is enduring a period of transition.
"I think at international level women's football in Northern Ireland is evolving. A lot of the girls Alfie Wylie has had for years have moved on or retired and he's trying to bring through a new generation.
"I believe you will see good results at underage level but it might be a while before that translates into success at senior level.
"The league is changing too. Crusaders Strikers and Glentoran Belfast United have dominated the league for a decade, but this year we're going to have a new champion, whether it's Linfield Ladies or Newry City Ladies. There's a lot of rumours about the league structure changing but I leave that side of things to the secretary.
"At Glentoran, we're also in a period of transition. A number of our internationals have moved on so we're building a new team. We signed young players so we could mould a squad for the future. We're mid-table at the moment, which is what we expected. Experiences like the Champions League will stand us in good stead."
Glentoran started their campaign with a 4-0 defeat to PAOK at Seaview on Tuesday night with Natalia Chatzigiannidou, Eleni Markou and a brace from Elena Dimitrijević giving the Greece side the points, despite the best efforts of goalkeeper Ashleigh McKinnon.
On Thursday, the Glens started well with Lauren Wade giving them the lead in the 15th minute against Bulgarian university side NSK Sofia. Unfortunately for the Belfast side goals from Valentina Gospodinova in the 59th minute and Velina Koshuleva in the 82nd minute gave Sofia the win.
On Sunday, Glentoran finished the mini-group on a high with a 2-0 victory over Macedonia side Dragon. Rachel Rogan gave the Glens the lead at Seaview in the 31st minute before Lauren Wade added a second five minutes later.
Reflecting on the week-long mini-tournament, coach Clarke said: "Some of our girls are internationals, so they will be used to this experience but for the majority of them, this is their first experience of staying in a hotel together for a week and playing foreign opposition.
"You learn a lot both on and off the field. On the pitch, we played against quality opponents who play a different style from what we're used to. But we also get videos of the games, which gives us the chance to analyse our performance. The girls have been coming up to me asking to see different parts of the video so they can learn from their mistakes. They want to work on their weak areas in training.
"Off the field, we get the opportunity to live with each other for a week. Normally we only see each other two or three times a week, but here we're living and working together. You learn things about the players you didn't previously know. You get see what motivates them and what doesn't.
"It's also good for team bonding. The whole experience has been a learning curve for the girls."
Greek side PAOK secured their passage into the last 32 of the Women's Champions League. They won all three games, completing the tournament with a 4-0 win over Bulgarian side Sofia at Solitude yesterday.