Women’s football in Northern Ireland is finally enjoying its place in the spotlight.
As the history-making women of the international team take on the might of Europe in the group stages in Southampton, and prepare for tomorrow night’s game against England, the Belfast Telegraph talks to three women who have played a role in influencing the rise of the sport from the sidelines.
Former Northern Ireland international and Irish FA women’s development manager Gail Redmond has been a BBC commentator for all of Northern Ireland’s European Championship qualifiers and the women’s World Cup qualifiers.
Elaine Junk is the chair of Mid-Ulster Ladies FC and the chair of the Electric Ireland Women’s Challenge Cup committee.
She was also instrumental in helping Simone Magill turn professional — Northern Ireland’s first female player to do so.
Anne Smith is a sponsorship specialist at Electric Ireland who has been behind the award-winning Game Changers campaign that has helped raise the profile and visibility of the game.
“If you can see it, you can be it!” is the resounding message from the women.
What do people need to know about women’s football? Are there any misconceptions about the players?
Elaine Junk (EJ): People should know more about the many paths to get involved in football. For those interested in playing, there is a good pathway but there are also lots of satisfying roles for those who don’t play.
From administration to coaching, whether it be sitting on a committee, a physio or a team, promoting the game as a PRO, there are off-the-pitch roles to suit a range of skills. I think now, with such a spotlight on the game, it’s a good time to get that message out there.
As for misconceptions, I think that the commitment and dedication of women players at the highest level is still under-recognised. Women train and work just as hard as their male counterparts.
Gail Redmond (GR): Women’s football is the fastest growing sport in the world. That is due in part to Uefa and Fifa prioritising equality and beginning to close the gap in terms of financial investment.
In Northern Ireland, we are making progress with a clear pathway from age four with programmes such as the Electric Ireland Shooting Stars, right up to Back in the Game which encourages women over 30 to play recreationally. The growth has been tremendous, with participation doubling in grassroots. These programmes are also tackling the misconception that football is for a certain age, football is for everyone — young and old.
Anne Smith (AS): I have to agree with Gail. Improvements in opportunities over the past few years has radically increased participation. The game continues on a phenomenal upwards trajectory.
Just this year, the Electric Ireland Northern Ireland Women’s Football Leagues have grown to accommodate seven new teams. As grassroots partner, we’re really delighted to celebrate this growth. What people need to know is, there are opportunities for every woman and girl, no matter what their experience or skill level.
In terms of role models, how important is it for young women interested in sport to see the NI football team?
EJ: Just recently Simone Magill said in an interview, “It used to be the case that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it, but that has changed now as girls can see it and can be it.” Visibility is bringing more girls and women into the game and not just as players. There is a whole host of women who help facilitate the players on the pitch, whether it’s in a frontline role like that of the recently-appointed director of women’s football at the Irish FA, Angela Platt.
GR: “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” That’s so true. Northern Ireland ladies went from being underdogs to performing on the biggest stage in European football. They went from 47th on the table to the top 16 in Europe. To be competing at this level is a phenomenal achievement. Some of these women have taken career breaks to pursue their dream, some have juggled training and playing with jobs and childcare duties. They are true role models, and their commitment can’t be understated.
AS: I grew up loving sport but my main role model as a young girl was Keith Wood. Now I have a daughter who loves sport and her heroes are Simone Magill and Marissa Callaghan. And that, of course, is down to visibility. So I would echo Simone, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” It is hugely important and extremely gratifying that the NI Women’s team are role models for my little girl and thousands of others.
How can we encourage young women into sport?
EJ: We can do so through the myriad of programmes that are provided through the Irish FA, like the Electric Ireland Shooting Stars, and the clubs, like Mid-Ulster Ladies Little Dribblers. These programmes are open to girls from aged four and nursery level respectively. Again, it’s a case of, “If you can see, it you can be it.”
Crucial, of course, in encouraging young girls is attracting their parents, getting to know them and getting them involved. As chair of a club, I know how important it is to have parental commitment and contribution in whatever form that takes, whether it’s supporting from the sidelines or washing the kit.
GR: Find out and understand what the barriers are to participation. At the Irish FA we undertook research that unearthed some of those obstacles. Sometimes the facilities aren’t close enough and transport is a problem; sometimes women can’t see where they can get involved. Research also shows that women often will join a sport if their friends are participating. We need to make effective use of the tools available to us and to share the stories that are being made at grassroots level.
AS: We have to make participating fun and accessible. As Elaine has said, we also have to make parents want their children to be involved. We need busy parents to want to invest in taking their children to a local team and building a community around that club. Growth comes from the benefits accrued when people buy in and become involved.
Attitudes are changing. How can they be advanced further?
EJ: We have an incredible opportunity to build on the success of the women’s national team. They truly are history makers and game changers and that is already their legacy. We must harness it as a springboard, not just for the women’s game, but for the positive impact it can have on societal issues such as challenging stereotypes on body image. Women’s football has the power to be a game-changer for us in Northern Ireland.
GR: We need to keep going. We’ve achieved so much, we are in the best place we’ve ever been, so we can’t rest. We have an excellent product, the game is exciting to watch, we need now to ensure that everything behind the players is of a high standard with plans in place to grow the game at every level.
AS: Electric Ireland has been involved in the women’s game for five years and it is already a world apart. And that is to be seen both on and off the pitch, from the success of the senior women under Kenny Shiels to the number of girls wearing football kits. For us, advancement lies in bringing the game to new audiences; we’ve being doing that with innovative campaigns such as the production of The Dancing Footballer, a book about Avery, a girl who loved football, that was written by a 10-year-old from Lurgan and now sits on the shelves of every primary school library in Northern Ireland. It is about being fully committed to success and in being a true partner to the Irish FA in supporting existing initiatives and bringing new ones.
Playing is one thing, but have you noticed any change in the fans or their attitudes?
EJ: The fanbase has grown exponentially in Northern Ireland, from fewer than 500 attending internationals to 16,000 watching Northern Ireland take on England at the National Stadium at Windsor Park. What is evident is that the fanbase is very family focused.
GR: Absolutely, there has been a massive culture shift across Europe. I see it every day. People will come up to me and engage in conversation, wanting to tell me that they saw the match, commenting on the quality of the play, how good the standard was, how they’ll be watching in future. It’s fantastic to see.
AS: Yes, most notable is the realisation that women are really skilful and that women’s football is a good family experience that they can buy into.
Why do you think Northern Ireland is so proud of its sporting stars?
EJ: We always come together to support them. We’re often divided on other things, but sport unites us. With the girls going to Southampton, for a lot of us, it is personal. We’ve played against them, we’ve played with them. They’ve done it as amateurs, so all those superlatives apply, we already think they are fantastic, empowering and encouraging.
GR: Put simply, we want to celebrate and feel part of the success of others. That goes way back, from Mary Peters’ gold medal and Dennis Taylor’s world championship, we just love to see local people do well.
AS: Yes, I agree, we delight in success, and we delight when our own do well. I think we appreciate the hard work required to achieve at a high level and are proud of our sports stars for putting in the graft.