‘There are significant gaps in female representation in roles across local football... we’re out to change that’
Former Northern Ireland Ladies captain Gail Redmond, who now works as women’s development manager at the Irish Football Association (IFA), and her sister Lisa Strutt, a leadership coach with the Reboot training company, are determined to see more women rise through the ranks in the sport.
The girls believe there has been an uneven playing field for too long and have been helping redress the balance with their Female Football Leadership Programme, of which current ladies team captain Marissa Callaghan is a graduate.
The profile of women’s football in general is on the up, especially after the NI team made history in April with their 4-1 win over Ukraine to qualify for the Women’s Euros 2022.
Sisters Gail and Lisa aim to keep working behind the scenes to make sure the magic continues.
Launched in 2013, their successful programme focuses on encouraging the ambition, confidence and leadership skills of women in football at every level in Northern Ireland.
As well as Marissa, current team graduates of the course include Julie Nelson, the first women’s player to receive 100 caps, Sam Kelly and international operations coordinator Heather Wright.
Many other women have gone on to take up leadership roles within local football as a result of the programme.
These include NIWFA chairperson Valerie Heron, NIFL women’s committee chairperson Clare Kirkwood, Mid Ulster Ladies chairperson Elaine Junk and Warrenpoint Town chief Aoife Downey, Northern Ireland’s first female football boss.
“The course was introduced in 2013 to encourage more women into leadership roles in football,” Gail says.
“There are significant gaps in female representation on boards, committees and in leadership roles in general within football across Northern Ireland. We want to change that.
“Lisa and I share the same vision. We are passionate about supporting women to achieve their goals. The Female Football Leadership programme does just that.
“Its content includes leadership modules, personality assessment and football administration.
“We are investing time not just in elite athletes but in women who will be leaders both on and off the field.
“There are gaps across women’s football and there are not enough women in leadership positions across Northern Ireland. Our programme was designed to try and fill those gaps.
“We want to see female leaders across the board at local level and on committees in the Irish FA.”
That the girls are passionate about football is hardly surprising, given their family links.
Their dad Harry Macklin played for Cliftonville, and their uncle Albert Macklin played for Crusaders, Carrick Rangers and the Northern Ireland youth team.
Gail (42) lives in Glengormley and is married to retail manager David, with whom she has children Theo (3) and Eliza (18 months).
Her involvement in ladies’ football goes back to her youth, and as well as being captain of the Northern Ireland Ladies in her teens, she has worked as an elite performance coach and senior national coach assistant.
Her talent saw her secure a soccer scholarship at the University of Southern Mississippi when she was 18.
She spent 10 years in America, where, aged 24, she made history by becoming the youngest head coach in the country’s first division.
Having spent so many years in the sport, she knows first-hand the challenges that women can face.
“As athletes, women work really hard to be physically ready, but sometimes we neglect other aspects such as leadership, which is very important too,” Gail says.
“Lisa has been a massive support of myself and the team when it comes to career advice. She has been our go-to person.
“She and her business partner Sinead have worked with so many unbelievable businesspeople and now they are working to give women their place in football.”
Lisa (48) and her business partner Sinead Sharkey-Steenson have collaborated on countless leadership programmes and worked with thousands of women.
They are passionate about women’s talent and growth.
Tragically, Lisa lost her husband John to pancreatic cancer last October. He was just 47.
She has three children, Rosie (19), James (17) and Holly (16).
Working with her sister for the betterment of women’s football has, she says, been a joy, especially since the course has done its job and encouraged women to think more seriously about leadership roles.
Last year, as the course was about to start, lockdown happened, so Lisa and Gail had to think on their feet to avoid its cancellation.
Instead of meeting in Belfast, Lisa decided to make the get-together virtual — and was and was thrilled to discover it was a huge success, with record numbers applying.
“Because Sinead and I already work online, coaching one-to-one, we suggested to the IFA that we could do it as a trial.
“The response was phenomenal and we reached far more women, especially from rural areas, who would have struggled to attend a Belfast-centred programme.
“Normally we have eight to 10 people on the course and last year we had 24.
“It made it very accessible, so we have adapted this type of blended learning for this year’s course.
“This year we have also opened it up to include women in Gaelic football and rugby.
“We felt there was a real synergy between the sports and that is the beauty of girls in sport as they are generally more open to collaboration.”
Lisa was delighted at how the girls bonded and became a team, even though they were taking part in the course remotely.
“We set up a WhatsApp group to allow people to discuss the topics we were covering. We were absolutely bowled over by the amount of interaction in the group and how the women were championing each other and the group in problem-solving,” she explains.
“What I love about the course is that it is a safe environment where women can articulate what their challenges are and then come up with solutions together as a group to help them to unleash their potential. As a coach, I find that very exciting.
“Our message is that there are leaders in football, so why can’t it be you? We can skill you up and give you confidence to go out and do it. We help you to learn, grow and be successful.”
Northern Ireland Ladies team captain Marissa Callaghan has no hesitation in championing the course.
She took part in it in 2017, with the skills gained helping her immensely both on and off the field.
“I do a lot of courses for coaching on the pitch, but the female leadership course gave me the opportunity to coach off the field,” she says.
“It helped me to reflect as a leader and realise what my strengths and weaknesses are. It helped me build resilience and build my own self-confidence.
“As captain of Cliftonville at the time, we were doing really well on the field but not so good off the field.
“The course showed me where we needed to improve and gave me the confidence to make changes to our academy and set-up. I got so much out of it.”
Find out more about the Female Football Leadership Programme at www.irishfa.com