Last week, Ireland Women’s manager Vera Pauw outlined two ways in which smaller nations can maximise their potential – mixed-gender teams to speed development and central contracts to create a competitive league. A third, she says, is domestic competitions specifically designed to develop players.
Cork City’s last appearance in a final was in 2018, when they were beaten to the WNL Shield by Wexford Youths in Turners Cross.
The Shield competition was designed to be played without international players and, as much as possible, would be played during the time when international players were on international duty. The idea was to create a competition with a more level playing field that would allow clubs to develop more players.
However, after some issues the competition wasn’t played in 2019 and hasn’t been reinstated in 2020. Pauw does believe there is a need for such a competition and feels it should be revisited and that clubs need to work together to ensure it achieves what it is created to do.
“We have been exploring the option for a range of games during these periods,” she says. “Because of all the problems around Covid-19 it did not happen, but both the clubs and the FAI see that we have to do it. The last time the intention was ruined because winning became important and national team players were put in the moment they were available. We have to look into it. It needs to be called a development league with a trophy that relates to it, like the ‘Development Shield’. Clubs wanted to make rules around it. I say in this we have to raise our standard and make a gentlemen’s agreement which all will hold themselves to. We are not children. By the way, children would not bend these rules to win. They always look for fairness in what they agree and when children change rules, they do that together. We as adults can learn from it.”
Pauw’s appointment last year was seen as a significant statement of ambition by the FAI, and while she admits that she initially turned the role down because she felt she needed a break, the efforts and honesty of the FAI and a discussion with her husband, fellow coach Bert van Lingen, convinced the role was right for her.
“Ruud Dokter called already 10 weeks before I signed,” says Pauw. “I first did not go for it, because I had plans to take a break. But other options fell apart and he came back to me time after time. So, because there was so much trust in me, I had a long talk with the CEO Noel Mooney and the president, Donal Conway. They flew to Frankfurt the morning after I agreed to talk. Noel Mooney’s wife had given birth to their first child the day before. I did not know that of course, but it showed their urgency and absolute will to succeed. We were on our way to our holidays and met halfway.
“This talk with the president and the CEO was very inspiring, because they did not paint the perfect picture, but the realistic situation from which the association tried to recover, and the absolute will to build the women’s game. They knew why they wanted me for the job at this time. The talk took four hours and only stopped because otherwise the CEO would miss his flight back! I found us already discussing the structures and the opportunities that the talent in Ireland should be offered. It was as if we were already colleagues!
“I decided to not agree immediately, but to sleep a night on it. Again, not because of the job but because we had other plans. My husband got it over the line. He was not at the talk of course but joined us for a cup of coffee and he felt the click. Because of my home situation, we agreed to have a very good assistant who would cover the players in Ireland, so that my husband and I would not be separated again. That was my only ‘demand’, I did not want to be separated from him again like during my jobs in South Africa and Thailand. We found Eileen Gleeson as assistant, the best you can get. So that issue was sorted.”
The Girls in Green have never qualified for a major women’s tournament at senior level but sit in a good position in their qualifying groups for the European Championships which take place next year, albeit with another game against red-hot group favourites Germany coming up. Qualification for that tournament would be a landmark for the women’s game here and Pauw is confident Ireland can qualify.
“Yes we can, otherwise we would not put so much energy and efforts in it,” she says. “We need fit players, that is the biggest condition. Too many of our players are picking up injuries at the club. Only against Ukraine at home, we had our full squad available. Against Greece, where we lost two points in the 93rd minute, we had five positions different on the pitch. That is too much. Ireland is a small women’s football country, so to succeed we have to make choices and choose our peak moments.”
In her 12 months as Ireland manager, Pauw has been impressed with what she has seen from Cork City’s set-up. I put it to her that City have a lot of good young talent in the club from the Academy through the U17 team and into the senior set-up.
“The numbers in the [national team’s] youth selections tell us that you are right in that,” says Pauw. “There is an atmosphere in which youth can develop. The next step is more integration with the youth boys, so that the resistance goes up. Training together, playing each other more often. Remember always: If the game is not played, the game is not learned or players do not enjoy playing anymore because there’s no 50-50% chance, difference in level, age ambition, we have to change something to get the principle back in. Optimal learning atmosphere should be maximum learning opportunity. Always.
“Cork City is a club that is growing. Young talents have a place to develop under good conditions. The club will climb to the top level if the development is encouraged day in, day out. The demographics slow down the process, because there are just not as many people living in Cork as in Dublin. But a process that you have to think about and consciously monitor, is usually a development that lasts.”
As for advice for young players hoping to make it to the top level, Pauw had some important observations.
“Be determined and make choices to achieve your ambition. No player reaches the top level without disappointing people. It is your life; it is your sport. If you need to train or play with boys to achieve that, then go for it. Organise school early, not a day before an activity, and make sure your schoolwork is always done on time. And within the team you play, listen to your coaches, they are there to help you develop.”