Irish hockey's cash boost can pave way to full-time set-up, says McFerran
Ayeisha McFerran has warmly welcomed Hockey Ireland's new bursary scheme but she hopes that it is merely the start of a process that ultimately leads to a full-time professional set-up for the national women's team.
The new initiative may also play a role in influencing the Ulster woman's next move at club level as she considers her options, one of which might now be to stay in Ireland rather than move abroad.
Dublin real estate firm Park Developments has come up with a timely four-year financial package which will fund the bursaries for Ireland's women as they bid for a place at an Olympic Games for the first time.
The first stage of the qualifying process takes place at Banbridge next month when Ireland require a top-two finish against lower-ranked opposition to progress to the final eliminator.
The new sponsorship deal facilitates an increase in contact hours, with 23 players being compensated to allow them to go into training camps for three days a week and not be out of pocket.
Until 2017, the international players had to pay an annual levy of £500 just to play for their country and, in addition, several took unpaid leave from their jobs to be able to give the commitment that was required.
Their dedication was rewarded when they surpassed all expectations to lift the silver medals at last year's World Cup when McFerran was named Goalkeeper of the Tournament.
The 23-year-old Larne woman performed heroics in London last August, highlighted by virtuoso displays as Ireland defeated India and Spain in penalty shoot-outs in the quarter and semi-finals respectively.
With the shift towards a semi-professional set-up, the Ireland players will be able to go some way towards matching some of the other top nations, many of whose players receive an annual salary, with those from England and Great Britain earning up to £30,000 per year.
The Irish scheme is obviously much less lucrative, being primarily compensatory rather than one that is profit-making, but is a welcome step in the right direction, according to McFerran.
She said: "It's great that Park Developments have come on board and given this opportunity to train more together.
"We welcome it with open arms but we definitely still need more support, I feel, if we are to make that big step to going to a fully professional level.
"From what I know there will be bursaries for the players to help make it easier in terms of work commitments to train on a more full-time basis.
"It's totally individualised, and each player in the squad has very different circumstances, so it will be a matter of sitting down with the Hockey Ireland board and determining each player's individual needs."
McFerran has just finished combining a degree course with a hockey scholarship at the University of Louisville and has yet to sign for a club. After her heroics at the World Cup, she wasn't short of offers to play outside of Ireland, but she revealed that staying at home is now a possibility, influenced by the bursary scheme.
She added: "My main priority is to get back to work with the girls and then I will worry about going abroad or staying here as I decide what is the best situation for myself and Irish hockey."