Belfast Telegraph

Ireland: Football: Maura makes magic move

By Malcolm Brodie

LIFE will never be the same again. First it was the MCC and now the Irish Football Association. At last women have entered the hallowed male sanctums of Lords and the IFA Council Chamber at Windsor Avenue.

LIFE will never be the same again. First it was the MCC and now the Irish Football Association. At last women have entered the hallowed male sanctums of Lords and the IFA Council Chamber at Windsor Avenue.

No woman ever sat in the Long Room on match days apart from the Queen during her annual visit to the Test.

Selected MCC members took it in rotation to converse with Her Majesty for 10 minutes and there is the story of an old fogey walking through the room and informing Gubby Allen: "I've just seen the most astonishing thing - Jim Swanton contravening the rules - there is some woman sitting with him in the Long Room!" Now for the first time in the 121-year history of the IFA a woman has been elected to the Council - Maura Muldoon, who represents the Northern Ireland Woman's Football Association of which she is chairman. Yes, Council meetings will never be the same again! Maura, born just outside Cookstown and a sports development officer with the Northern Ireland Sports Council responsible for community relations, women's issues, and rehabilitation, is a lady with a mission - to ensure the progression of the women's game throughout the province. No doubt it is a goal she will achieve.

What attracted her to soccer? "When I was an officer with the Northern Ireland Probation Board I joined their team and it carried on from there," she said. "Then I was sent as a representative to the League and eventually got roped into the Women's FA Council. I've been its secretary and occupied the chair for the last four years.

"We've had quite a few meetings with the IFA over various matters. Now we're affiliated entitled to send a delegate with voting powers."

Maura, modest, articulate, possesses vision and in debate is capable of hammering home her points with conviction as she proved at last year's annual meeting when the proposal to admit women failed on a technicality - prelude to it being unanimously and genuinely accepted at this week's annual meeting when so many proposed changes to Articles of Association were called out by numbers one could have been excused for assuming it was a bingo session! She was inspired when she attended the Women's World Cup in the United States two years ago taking in the semi-finals and then the final at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California, where the standard was high, the skill of some players quite bewildering. How the capacity crowds loved it.

"The Scots have a wonderful set-up. Vera Pauw, wife of Rangers assistant manager, who has played for Holland is the driving force and head coach to the under-16 squad. "And the SWFA, backed by their national governing body and Lottery assistance, have established an office in Livingston with a couple of full-time administrators.

"We're moving in that direction. Shane McCullough is the international manager while Seamus Heath looks after the under-16 girls. In the past the international scene was somewhat fragmented but this is being remedied and we are hopeful of having a squad capable of competing in the UEFA tournament 2003. There are 32 teams in the province, 600 players, 20 per team, and the numbers are increasing steadily."

Maura realises the difficulty taking into account the IFA's financial position - almost a £1m trading loss over two years - in getting funding on the scale the Scots provide for their women. That will come in due course while the search for commercial backing intensifies.

"Interest in football among young girls is high. There is, however, little opportunity or an avenue to graduate from mini-soccer to the senior teams. It is too big a leap so we are developing junior league in Belfast this summer. We also have a grant of £12,500 per annum over two years for the under-16 squad. Any sponsors out there will be welcomed by us!" She is pragmatic in her approach realising, that while women's soccer is increasing in popularity, and has to be assisted to make a case for support and funding they must prove they are able to compete in Europe.

"Many of the girls contribute money themselves. They are dedicated, totally committed and watch with interest - and, perhaps, a little envy - the advances made by Fulham Ladies, funded by Al Fayed, Arsenal Ladies, and Wolves .

"They are inspired also by the World Cup which makes them fully aware of the heights which have to be attained. They really stick at it and have to be commended for that.

"Another point - we've five or six girls currently on scholarships in the USA. Women's football is on the move.

"Association with major league clubs in Northern Ireland would, she believes, not only benefit women's football but football generally.

"After all one of the aims of the IFA is to make it a family game. Women can certainly contribute to that; girls playing football at the moment will be the mothers of the next generation."

Surprise, surprise. Maura is a Manchester United supporter.

Her first memory of the Red Devils and, of course, George Best, was the 1968 European Cup triumph at Wembley and she can recall too those disappointing , depressing years dominated by Leeds United and Liverpool.

" I would take in three or four local games while many of the girls have an interest in Irish League football as well as making trips to Old Trafford, Anfield and other grounds across the water."

Northern Ireland's women's football spans the community divide - the game is paramount.

"We have no religious issues - none at all which is a major plus factor. As one professionally involved in community relations I would be unhappy if that ever became an issue," she said.

Teams represent a geographic area and, naturally, there is sporting rivalry but that's it - the game and the camaraderie mean everything to those girls.

How refreshing to learn this for the NIWFA will be an asset to the IFA who have led the way in attempting to end the cancer of sectarian and all the other isms.

Relaxation? - "I watch women's football, enjoy foreign travel and have already visited Australia, New Zealand and the European countries," she said And her aim? - "To work closely with the IFA and ensure the women's game becomes part of soccer's overall structure."

The election of a NIWFA representative to the IFA Council is a positive and long overdue step. If anybody can make a valued and major contribution to the governing body it is the ex-St Joseph's Donaghamore and Dungannon Academy pupil.

Good luck to her and all the others helping to put Northern Ireland's women's football on the map.

Belfast Telegraph

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