It is not often that the Irish Women’s National League is thrust into world football’s spotlight. But that is exactly what happened over two years ago, when footage of Stephanie Roche’s wonder goal for Peamount United against Wexford Youths took the footballing world by storm.
Jaws dropped across the globe at the sheer brilliance of Roche’s strike, which finished second place in the 2014 FIFA Puskás Award after fans voted in their thousands. Republic of Ireland women’s head coach Sue Ronan has no doubts that Roche’s wonder goal boosted the profile of the women’s game in the Emerald Isle.
“It really was an international thing. Everyone was interested in the goal and she’s now so recognisable,” Ronan told FIFA.com. “It’s definitely created more awareness. There’s more kids who see her as a role model and we need role models for young girls so they can aspire to be a footballer.
“Certainly the likes of Stephanie has helped that, the likes of our U-17 and U-19 squads qualifying for European finals and doing so well, there are new events for us and they definitely raise the profile and create role models for young girls, which ultimately will lead to them playing the game.”
It was not so long ago, however, that the women’s game in the Republic of Ireland did not have the luxury of a top-flight division, and if it were not for the Women’s National League – which was only established in 2011 – the world may have missed out on Roche’s fabulous strike.
“When I was the U-19 coach we didn’t have a national league,” said Ronan, who took charge as head coach of the senior side in October 2010. “Better players were only playing in local leagues and they weren’t being challenged because they were the best players in their area.
“Now that we have a national league, the best are playing with the best. That’s been a huge success. It allows the home-based players to play at the top level where they didn’t have that before and had to go abroad.”
Evergreen Byrne looks to bright future
One star Irish player who was forced to ply her trade abroad is 36-year-old captain Emma Byrne. Despite this, the Arsenal Ladies goalkeeper has enjoyed a very successful career, claiming 11 league titles in England, as well as the 2007 UEFA Women’s Champions League.
But the opportunities that were denied to the shot-stopper in her youth are now being presented to the next generation from the Republic of Ireland – something which Byrne feels will pay dividends for the senior international side in the future.
“There are now a lot more avenues for girls,” Byrne told FIFA.com. “There are scholarships and we have professional and semi-professional levels, so there’s more to promote soccer as a career choice. The standard has got a lot better, the coaches have got a lot better. There’s a proper avenue for coaches to work in women’s football whereas before, it was always just a hobby.
“It’s probably the largest growing sport, women’s football in Ireland. We know there’s a great foundation and good talents coming up. We’ve got 17, 18 and 19-year-olds who are playing with our senior team – and deservedly so.”
With the massive strides that have been made in recent years, women’s football in Ireland certainly has a bright future, and Ronan has called for even greater participation.
“We just need to continue growing the base," continued Ronan. "I think you need to increase your numbers playing all the time to get more elite players coming through.
“We need to make our league stronger. For me, a youth national league would be our next step. We might look at having one for the U-17s. At present, the girls go into our senior national league at 16 and that’s not ideal. I think three or four more years at their age group is a better way to go.
“We’re getting great support from both FIFA and UEFA in terms of equipment and education – and that’s been invaluable. It’s great to know that they’re there to help when we need them.”