Manchester United coach Casey Stoney welcomes Electric Ireland backing IFA

Manchester United women's first team coach Casey Stoney at Windsor Park where Electric Ireland and the Irish FA announced an expansion of another three years to their partnership, with Cerys Madden and NI captain Marissa Callaghan in the background.

WHEN Windsor Park welcomes the Manchester United manager and a former England captain you’d expect the media room to be packed.

The fact that it was, with Casey Stoney fulfilling both those roles, is perhaps more surprising - yet indicative of the growing interest in women’s soccer.

The boss of the Red Devils’ women’s team was the star guest at the announcement of Electric Ireland’s increased support for the sport here, now adding their backing to the Northern Ireland women’s side.

Stoney knows from personal experience the value of financial backing, but she also argues that women can’t just expect to receive the same rewards as their men:

“I think it’s all relative – it depends on the revenue you bring in. So I completely agree with the American [women’s] team’s stance on equal pay, because they actually bring in more revenue, so they have every right to be paid equally, if not more than their male counterparts.

“At the moment, national governing bodies probably make a loss investing in the women’s game, so I don’t think equal pay is right in those scenarios – but the American [women’s] team have every right to fight for it.”

While the USA are the dominant force on the international scene, Stoney is aiming to make Manchester United major players on the women’s club front.

The appeal of the Red Devils band was shown last season, as the re-born outfit stormed to promotion, winning the FA Women’s Championship in front of excellent attendances, as Stoney recalls:

“We broke every single away attendance record at every ground we went to last season, so it shows you that the support’s there. 5,000 at our opening home game – and when we go to the Etihad we’ll be looking at 25-30,000 people there. It’s massive.

“When I took the job on I only did so on the premise that it was going to be done the right way. We have the potential to change the face of the women’s game because of the reach that Manchester United has.”

As mentioned, United will open their Women’s Super League season away to Manchester rivals City at the Etihad, but Stoney is not rushing to take her team to Old Trafford:

“As a head coach, I’d rather sell out our home ground first, concentrate on that, rather than have a one-off game where potentially we’re giving away tickets and under-selling the product. We have a fantastic 12,000-seater, and we have to focus on selling that out consistently.

“Opening up a stadium like Old Trafford doesn’t just happen. We want to make sure we fill it, otherwise you have an empty soulless stadium. We want to do it right.

“I’m fully supported by the club – and we are a club where commercial partners want to get involved in the women’s game. The more commercial partners we can bring on board, the more investment goes into the team, and the more we can aim towards sustainability.”

Money will flow towards Manchester United, but other teams – including international sides like Northern Ireland – need all the help they can get, Stoney accepts, which makes Electric Ireland’s input very important.

“It’s huge. Without investment, without money, you can’t invest in coaches or players, you can’t invest in facilities or the grassroots game. All those areas are key.

“The big thing for us [as players] was we got central contracts, which enable us to go part-time in our jobs, eventually quit our jobs, which meant we could go full-time as players. It makes a huge difference from training twice a week compared to training every single day. No wonder the product on the pitch gets better – the technical ability of the player gets better.

“Everyone was talking about the World Cup and how every player had come so far – because almost all of them at the top level are full-time. It was on the BBC so everyone was able to watch. The girls have been doing that for some time, the quality has been there, it’s just the visibility that’s there now.”

Electric Ireland’s support now also covers title sponsor to the Northern Ireland youth international teams as well as the elite pathway for the female game.

In addition the company is lead sponsor for women’s and girls’ grassroots football and competitions like the Electric Ireland Women’s Challenge Cup and Schools’ Cup as well as the Shooting Stars initiative which encourages girls aged four to seven to play football.

Stoney, who has two young daughters herself, welcomed the support: “At grassroots, it’s about opportunity, giving every little girl the opportunity to get out there, play, and enjoy it. The visibility of role models matters too; you need to be able to see your heroes to believe in it and then you can work hard and go out and achieve it.

“Playing from an early age brings confidence and self-esteem, that physical literacy. A lot of girls fall out of the game because they don’t have exposure to it, they don’t play it in the playground at school or don’t have a grassroots team.

“There were no [girls] teams when I was growing up; I just got lucky, I played with the boys and they accepted me. Without that opportunity and exposure they don’t have the confidence and when they get to 11 or 12, and have more self-awareness, they drop out of the game. They don’t have the confidence to continue.

“Exposure normalises it. That’s a bit of a shocking statement in 2019 because it’s sport and it should be available to everybody, but it normalises it to parents, who say ‘I’ll take my boys and girls to football’, to teachers at schools, who start up teams for both, don’t just say ‘Right, you’re for netball, you’re for football’, and for the governing bodies, who invest in the women’s game and give them a chance.”

Although the Women’s World Cup was a massive success, with vastly increased TV audiences, Stoney insists that much more effort must be expended:

“We still have an awful lot of work to do. You need to be able to translate those figures who were watching on TV into attendances. Until we get the attendances right, and we’ve got people coming through the gates to watch the games and keep coming back, then we’ll still have work to do.

“We are growing, the game’s going in the right direction, it’s in such a positive place – but that doesn’t mean we stop working”.

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