Brendan Crossan: How to sow the seeds of the female game

Ladies GAA must see the angles and compete better for media coverage

Fermanagh ladies
Fermanagh Ladies during a training session in Enniskillen ahead of their Ulster final with Derry

THE Ladies GAA isn’t always in the media’s eye-line - and even with integration on the horizon doesn’t mean the promotion of their games will improve or that everyone will have a nice, soft landing onto utopian fields once it all comes to pass.

The GAA’s female community will still have to play with their elbows up to create space for themselves. The media has an important role to play here too.

One of the enduring obstacles within the GAA is the GAA itself, and how its teams and players generally keep a safe distance from the God-awful ‘meedja’.

There has been this historical, largely inarticulate suspicion of television and newspapers - not helped in more recent times by the GAA’s split season where it has become virtually impossible to cover men’s football and hurling to the degree everyone would like, never mind the female codes.

GAA reporters rarely get their heads lifted from one week to the next - and so many engaging and insightful stories can go untold.

Even if inter-county players and managers were amenable to the idea, there is so little time to organise sit-down interviews between Championship games.

Thankfully, the Irish News sports department still invests heavily in two of the profession’s greatest resources: time and space.

In an era of social media clickbait and growing fast-food journalism, there are still a few notable exceptions in the industry that continually lobby for, as the late, great Hugh McIlvanney called it, “meaningful access”.

If these media outlets ever stopped lobbying, they’d soon become jaded and drown in the anodyne mire of top-table press conferences, zooms and mass-produced player sound-bite pieces.

Some, though, still play ball.

For instance, the Wicklow footballers flung open its doors to a couple of sports journalists last month where they sat in on the team’s video analysis, team-talks and training session.

It was a refreshing departure but an all too rare event.

On Tuesday night, I was invited into the Fermanagh senior ladies camp by their manager CJ McGourty.

I sat in on their video analysis session and watched their training a little later. No trade secrets were divulged or sought.

I was even fed chicken curry and boiled rice for making the 180-mile round trip to St Michael’s College, Enniskillen.

The standard of the pitch session and their skill levels were outstanding.

Sharp. Slick. Intense. The number of fumbles of the ball, you could count on one hand.

This is exactly where the female game can make serious gains on the men - and realise the potential for greater coverage of their games lies in meaningful access, especially when the condensed calendar makes it a very crowded place.

I’ve been involved in coaching girls for the last four-and-a-bit years. Many of them joined the team when they were six years old.

As time rolls on, you realise societal barriers females face in sport. In any given household, if Joseph’s game clashes with Josephine’s game, Josephine’s game might fall by the way side a bit quicker than Joseph’s.

Joseph plays football. Josephine has another hobby that happens to be football.

All Joseph ever wants to be is a professional footballer, while Josephine wouldn’t mind being a footballer but fancies a career on stage too.

Sociology of gender is at play here.

Of course, not every kid - male or female - wants to pursue sporting excellence and that’s when the value of streams come into play and finding a creative space for them to enjoy what they do.

Also, sub-consciously or otherwise, sports bodies often give greater credence to boys, and the girls section becomes a bit of a loose appendage when it comes to scheduling and games.

But parents will always be the greatest drivers of ambition in their children. The coach merely collaborates with the parents.

Blaithin Bogue
Fermanagh forward Blaíthín Bogue is one of the leading female players in Ulster

When I surveyed the focus, dedication and enjoyment among the Fermanagh senior ladies squad at St Michael’s College on Tuesday night, I thought of the parent or the guardian who backed each of them from an early age.

They’re playing elite sport today because of their own dedication and because of those who recognised it in them and decided to become a taxi service for a good chunk of their daughter’s childhood.

Blaíthín Bogue and Eimear Smyth are two of the stand-out talents in the Fermanagh squad.

Smyth has dynamite in her boots and could easily play in any forward line in the country.

Bogue, meanwhile, has already signed a pre-contract with Aussie Rules club North Melbourne Tasmanian Kangaroos.

There is probably a small clutch of young female footballers in and around Derrgonnelly and Tempo wanting to be the next Eimear Smyth or Blaíthín Bogue - but their reach is minimal because the GAA public don’t really know a great deal about them.

Their talent needs greater exposure. All it takes is for a canny PRO to see the angles and you create a growth industry among young girls.

People interested in promoting the game should be seeking out Louise Gunn’s phone number and offering the Irish News Ladies football correspondent a sit-down interview with them. And the media interest grows from there.

Katie Taylor and Ciara Mageean have spawned future boxing and athletic careers among young girls in Ireland more than they’ll ever know or appreciate.

Likewise, Katie Taylor and Marissa Callaghan whose talent and affability have made them poster girls for nine and 10-year-old girls who are learning and loving to kick a football around and are now dragging their mothers and fathers out to training.

Who knows, one day they might play at the highest level.

And even if they don’t, they will appreciate the value of playing team sport and their lives will be enriched as a consequence.

Sometimes all it takes is a willing parent to make the difference: have car, can travel.