The 2009/10 season has been a historic year for international women's football in Ireland, particularly at U17 level as the Republic of Ireland reached the Association's first ever UEFA Championship final at women's level, defeating teams such as Sweden and Germany en route. The U17's are currently in Tobago where they will face Ghana in the final game of Group D in the FIFA Women's World Cup on Monday (September 13), knowing that a victory will send them to the quarter finals of the competition.
The young â€˜Girls in Green' have exceeded all expectations this season in their UEFA Championship campaign and in the World Cup where they were narrowly beaten 2-1 by Brazil which was followed with a well deserved 1-0 victory over North American champions, Canada in Trinidad last Thursday.
Behind the all-conquering Irish squad are two of Irish football's greatest servants, Sharon Boyle and Claire Scanlan who have nearly 40 years international experience and 127 senior international caps between them. Former Republic of Ireland defender, Sharon Boyle played 70 times for the Irish senior team, scoring eleven goals from defence and played with clubs such as Elmount, Bohemians, Castle Rovers, Shamrock Rovers and Raheny United, winning an impressive 13 Irish league titles in the process.
Sharon (pictured), now a FAI Community Development Officer in Fingal has praised the Irish U17's performances in the competition to date, "The performances that the team have showed in the World Cup have been unbelievable in the games against Brazil and Canada. We were all disappointed to lose the opening game to Brazil even though I thought we did enough to get a positive result from the game. What was even more impressive was the reaction of the girls to that defeat in the game against Canada where the girls rectified all of the mistakes which we made against Brazil. The game was a tough tactical challenge for us, we played to our strengths which is getting on the ball when maybe in the previous match, we may have played it long. Our focus is now on Ghana, we are preparing the team to win on Monday and while Ghana will be a tough challenge for us, they will be incredibly hard to beat but it is important to instill a winning mentality in the dressing room but the confidence is extremely high anyway," she said.
Speaking about the development of the game over the past number of years, Sharon Boyle praised the increased investment and support which has been given to the development of women's football in recent years, "As a former international player, I can see the incredible advances which have been made at this level over the past ten years. Years ago, there was no underage international structure in Ireland, if you were good enough you went and played for the senior team. While we now have European Championship and World Cup qualifying campaigns, which may consist of ten or twelve games a season, before we had only one or two games a year in an amateur structure. At the moment, the players are treated like professional athletes, from the logistics of the team, the training and preparation to the games themselves. This is because of the investment by the FAI, the Government and the Irish Sports Council who have put so much investment into women in sport over the last ten years."
"I think Noel King's appointment into Irish women's football was a real turning point for the game both at international and domestic level. He came from a professional background at the men's game and he knew what was expected to create a professional environment for Ireland's women's players to develop and brought in coaches like Harry Kenny who also had experience of professional football with Shamrock Rovers. Another important milestone in the development of the women's game in Ireland was the appointment of four dedicated FAI Women's Development Officers who develop women's football from all ages and there is now a clear pathway for our youngest players to play at a level that they are capable at with programmes such as the Aviva Soccer Sisters and the Emerging Talent Programme. Women's football is now on the map in Ireland because of the successes of this U17 team - because of these players, I believe that the number of young participants will increase across the board and this is why the continued investment is so important as we now have a real opportunity to build on this success and improve on the structures already in place," she added.
Another member of the Irish coaching staff is Claire Scanlan (pictured right) who is now the assistant coach at Troy University in Alabama. Scanlan made 57 appearances for the Irish senior team and scored seven goals before she retired in 2009. During her career, she featured for clubs such as Rush Athletic, Mercyhurst College (USA), Oki FC (Japan), Shelbourne, Leeds United and Bristol Academy in England. Among the honours she won in her career include the 1999 FAI International player of the year award, two All-American Awards, and three player of the year awards at her respective clubs.
"As a former international player, it is so rewarding to be involved with this team. While we try give them as much knowledge as we can as former senior internationals, the game has changed so much at this level since our time as players. I first made my debut for Ireland in 1989 in an U18 game against Northern Ireland. While we won the game 2-0 in Tolka Park, the game was just a gesture, there was no underage structure at that level and the resources were very limited. There was no such thing as underage or schools team which is something which is heavily supported in Ireland now. As an 11 year old girl in Dublin, I played with a senior women's team which would be completely unheard of in these days. There is a real opportunity for girls to make a career in football or sport whether it is as a player or a coach, while you only have to look at my former team-mate, Sharon Boyle who is now a football Development Officer for the FAI in Fingal."
"The face of women's football in Ireland has changed so much in such a small number of years. The FAI have been instrumental in sourcing funding through Government, Irish Sports Council and local authority bodies. We are now reaping the benefits of this support and we are slowly becoming real contenders in women's international football," said Scanlan.
Speaking about the current crop of U17 players, Scanlan said, "This World Cup may prove to be a defining moment of our next generation of international stars. There is a huge challenge for us now to retain these players in the game and give them a clear pathway to senior football if they wish to develop their international careers. The World Cup gives these players the experience of real international football, playing teams from all over the world and facing different challenges with every game. With the World Cup experience comes interest from the general public back home in Ireland and I know that that the girls realise that they are playing for everybody in Ireland and they most certainly realise the significance of what they have achieved" she said.
The Irish U17 head into Monday's game against Ghana at the Dwight Yorke Stadium in Tobago, knowing that a victory will put them through to the last eight of the competition. As it stands, all four teams are tied on three points after two game with Ireland topping the table with a superior goal difference.
Kick-off is on Monday, September 13 at 12 am (Irish time) and the game will be streamed live on www.FIFA.com.
FIFA Women's U17 World Cup - Group 4 Fixtures
Republic of Ireland 1-2 Brazil
Monday, September 6
Larry Gomes Stadium, Trinidad
Republic of Ireland 1-0 Canada
Thursday, September 9
Larry Gomes Stadium, Trinidad
Republic of Ireland v Ghana
Monday September 13
Dwight Yorke Stadium, Tobago
Kick-off: 7pm (local time)