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Women's football is at fever pitch, with crowds soaring and Northern Ireland participation at an all-time high

Buoyed by the success of the World Cup, Ivan Little hears from coaches, fans and stars of our own beautiful game

Ladies first: Kirsty McGuinness (left) and Ashley Hutton
Ladies first: Kirsty McGuinness (left) and Ashley Hutton
Kirsty in action for Linfield Ladies
Dream team: Kirsty McGuinness, coach Mark Duff and Ashley Hutton of Linfield Ladies
Fans Olive and Willie Dougherty

Football in Northern Ireland is no longer just a man's world. For more and more women here are getting their kicks from the beautiful game whose male followers stopped putting the boot into the opposite sex's efforts a long time ago.

With the ridicule it once attracted ever diminishing, high profile tournaments like the recent World Cup in Canada - which drew record crowds and TV audiences - have shown that the ladies' game is a sport to be reckoned with.

Across the province a quiet revolution over the last five years has seen over 4,500 women taking up the game, most of them just for fun.

Hundreds of girls are turning out every week for 46 women's clubs, some of whom have more than one team, and in a wide range of restructured league and cup tournaments, the competition is fierce.

The Irish Football Association has been devoting more funds and more energy to increasing the popularity of the women's game and international teams are generally accepted to be punching above their weight.

Sue O'Neill, chairwoman of the Northern Ireland Women's Football Association, which dates back to the 1970, positively exudes passion about the game here, and her goal is to expand the sport to new heights.

Sue, who in her youth came back from living in England to stake her claim to a place in the Northern Ireland international team, says: "I love the game. I was with the Post Office ladies' team who won the first league format 10 years in a row and I was lucky enough to be the top goalscorer."

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But the game Sue played back then is chalk and cheese from the one today which is in an almost unrecognisably buoyant state with coverage on UTV on Sunday nights having boosted its standing, ably assisted by its full-on promotion on social media.

Sara Jane Booth, who is the IFA's women's domestic football manager, was at the World Cup, and was ecstatic. "It was an incredible experience. The atmosphere was electric,

"There was no swearing, no aggression towards the players and the overwhelming admiration and pride for the players was palpable."

Over 50,000 fans attended the final which was seen by record numbers of TV viewers across the globe including a staggering 24.7m in America and 11m in Japan.

Sara says: "The success of the tournament clearly shows that women's football is growing as a product and a brand that sponsors want to be a part of. The quality of football on offer and the growing spectator figures is certainly evident."

Sue O'Neill says she believes the World Cup will give women's football here a leg-up. "I think we will see the impact over the next few years when we will witness even more girls playing the game. It's no longer seen as a tomboy pastime but rather as a female sport in its own right."

Sara Jane Booth echoes Sue's excitement about the potential for growing the women's game in Northern Ireland, which will host the UEFA Women's Under 19 Finals in 2017.

"The IFA have invested substantially in the female game in the last 10 years and there is a serious commitment by the association to developing the sport here."

Eight teams currently compete in the Women's Premier League which takes place during the summer months, and established Irish League clubs like Linfield, Glentoran, Cliftonville and Crusaders are taking their women's sides more seriously than ever before.

On Wednesday night, Linfield beat Crusaders 3-0 in a top-of-the-table clash in front of 130 spectators, a bigger crowd than would have been seen at some games in the equivalent men's league last season. Most of the fans were men, including fathers, boyfriends and colleagues of the players, but the odd curious newcomer was there too. And we of little faith couldn't help but be impressed by the skills, the pride and the commitment from the 22 players in this no-holds-barred Belfast derby, which wasn't one for the faint-hearted with crunching tackles going on all over the place.

The only thing obviously missing for diehards of the men's game in Northern Ireland was the swearing and the play-acting.

Willie and Olive Dougherty from Lisburn, who are avid Linfield followers, go to virtually every game involving the Blues' ladies.

Willie says: "We travel all over the place to see them. The standard is improving all the time. And don't forget - the girls aren't getting paid yet they train as often as the men do."

Olive says: "I think the football the girls play is actually better than what you will see in the men's game."

But the gender boundaries aren't the only ones which have been demolished by women's football.

Take Linfield for example. The club which once had only Protestants in their men's teams now recruit players solely on their ability for all of their sides and nowhere is that more evident than in their girls' ranks.

Indeed several of the Linfield Ladies are also stars of GAA football, turning out for Antrim's top teams.

And the fact that Linfield's "home" match during the refurbishment of their Windsor Park stadium was played at a Catholic grammar school at Dunmurry speaks for itself.

Mark Duff, who is the manager of Linfield Ladies, said no religious boundaries exist for the squad. "We are a mixed team and we are proud of it.

"No one has ever had any difficulties with religion," he said.

"Some of our girls come to our training with their Antrim gear on and go to Antrim training with their Linfield shirts on."

Sue O'Neill says: "Sectarianism has never been a problem in women's football. All the clubs I have ever known have always had a great blend of Protestants and Catholics. The game has always broken down that divide which has been brilliant."

Neil Morrow, a former coach who is the secretary of Linfield Ladies, says the standard of the women's game is improving all the time, thanks to a more "professional" attitude of the clubs.

Neil says the attitude to women's football has changed dramatically in recent years.

"When I used to tell some men what I was doing they looked at me as if I had two heads, but not any more.

"Obviously you can't compare the men's and women's games in terms of pace and stamina, but the skill levels from the girls are right up there.

"I always maintain that the best player I ever coached wasn't a man, but a woman.

"If Kirsty McGuinness, who plays for Linfield was a boy, Manchester United would have re-located her and her family years ago.

"She would be worth millions. I brought her into the team when she was just 14 and she has scored at least 20 goals every season. Like Kirsty, Ashley Hutton is a fantastic international.

"She played the game in Iceland for a time and has attracted interest from clubs in England, but she is committed to Linfield.

"But there are also some other wonderful girls playing for the likes of Glentoran, Crusaders and Cliftonville."

Away from Belfast, Sion Swifts from Co Tyrone are among the unexpected success stories of women's football this season.

The Swifts have rocketed through the ranks of the junior game, winning promotion every year since their formation in 2010 - and they're now enjoying their first season in the Premier League.

They've also knocked Glentoran out of the Irish Cup and now have their sights on Linfield in the next round.

Brenda Barr, who is the club secretary - and chief kit washer and tea-maker - says: "The enthusiasm here is infectious. Most of our players come from Sion Mills and Strabane, though we have a couple of girls from Derry, too.

"We have four junior teams in the Foyle Cup and we also have the senior team."

Brenda's 17-year-old daughter Naomh is the Swifts' goalkeeper and she has also been in international squads, as well as representing Tyrone GAA minor sides.

"She loves both codes of football," says Brenda.

"She watched every match in the World Cup in Canada right through the wee small hours."

The Sion Swifts crowds are growing all the time.

Brenda says: "A lot of men have started watching our games because the standard is improving consistently."

One of the main drawbacks for the women's game in general here has been a lack of cash and some girls have to pay to play.

But at Sion Swifts, a major fundraising campaign - plus the input of a kit sponsor - ensures that the girls aren't out of pocket.

Otherwise the cost of travel would have been prohibitive for the Swifts who clock up huge mileage on their buses to play away games against four clubs from Belfast and sides from mid-Ulster, Newry and Dromore.

But if the fervour of clubs like Sion Swifts is anything to go by, the future of women's football here seems assured.

More girls than ever are signing up for clubs and even toddlers are enlisting in Saturday morning football schemes such as the one run by the Swifts club.

And they've captured the imagination of the public by calling their initiative for their tiny tots, the Little Dribblers.

Belfast Telegraph


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