Article by Marie Duffy
This time last year, girls’ football didn’t exist in the two small neighbouring rural villages of Creeslough and Dunfanaghy in County Donegal. The local football club Dunfanaghy Youths FC had huge numbers of boys training each week but had no dedicated provision for girls
Last December, a once off training session was arranged before Christmas to see if there was any interest from the girls in the community in playing soccer. It was essentially a trial run, an attempt to see if the numbers were there for a team. Several factors came together to make this the perfect time to try to get girls’ football up and running. Ireland had recently qualified for the Women’s World Cup, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) had been actively promoting female coaches, and grassroots football was on the rise.
Expectations for the training session were modest. We hoped for a few dozen girls to attend, with the prospect of a few more training sessions to follow. However, what happened far exceeded our wildest dreams. The level of interest was unprecedented with almost 50 girls turning up on the first night!
For many of the girls who came to our first training sessions, it was their first time to play football.
Since that first training session, the girls have continued to train and have played a number of friendlies against local teams. There are now around 80 girls from the age of 5- 16 years old training every week which is remarkable.
In June the girls were invited by Liam Ward and Johnny Nugent from Shelbourne FC Women’s team to watch a match in Tolka Park. Shelbourne are one of the top teams in the Women’s Irish league and were playing rivals Peamount United.
Two buses of over 70 people set off from Creeslough and made the long journey to Dublin.
The excitement was contagious and the atmosphere on the bus was unreal and you would have sworn the girls were going to the World Cup final. While many of the girls had seen female athletes on TV or participated in various sports, witnessing a live soccer match with professional female athletes was a first. They were invited to play on the pitch at halftime and were delighted by the cheers from the crowd who made them feel like superstars. They got to meet all the players after the full-time whistle and got their signatures.
After the match Shelbourne had a special surprise and had arranged for the Ireland Assistant Coach and Irish international Jamie Finn to meet with us and all of our girls were given a goodie bag. They also provided pizza for everyone and I don’t think pizza has ever been devoured as quickly.
The chance to watch a women’s match and play on the pitch at halftime was a unique experience for the girls and has only fuelled their passion for the sport. When the buses landed back in Creeslough that night, there was a large crowd waiting to welcome a local man back from his charity run. However, the girls with their confidence high after a day of being treated as VIPs by Shelbourne, assumed that the crowd were there to welcome them home and waved enthusiastically to everyone as they came off the bus.
The girls have received huge support from local businesses and one organisation in particular that has supported them has a connection to two well-known English football clubs. The Robert Eaton Memorial Fund, a charity associated with Brighton and Hove Albion FC and Crystal Palace, reached out after seeing a tweet I posted about the newly formed girls’ team in Dunfanaghy. The trust had an inspiring origin: it was established in memory of Robert Eaton, a dedicated Brighton & Hove Albion fan who tragically lost his life on September 11, 2001, while working on the 105th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Centre in New York. Friends and fellow supporters were determined not to let his memory fade and set up The Robert Eaton Memorial Fund (REMF) in his memory.
The first fundraiser for the charity was a challenge match between Brighton Supporters and Crystal Palace Supporters and despite their rivalry, they set it aside in Robert’s name. Thousands of pounds were raised during the match, exceeding the expectations of even the most optimistic supporters. Since its foundation, the charity has raised over £ 350,000 and has supported football initiatives in New York, Zambia, Kenya, Cambodia, South Africa, and the UK. Dunfanaghy Youths Girls are the only Irish team to have received funding from REMF. Thanks in particular to the generosity and support of Angela Ridge, Robert’s sister, and Alan Wares, the Robert Eaton Memorial Fund donated 3,700 Euro to Dunfanaghy Youth Girls. This funding was used to purchase equipment that will benefit all members of the club.
Since that first training session in December, the growth of the girls’ team has been astounding, with around 80 girls participating in training sessions every Monday night. Next year, Dunfanaghy Youths Girls will enter teams from different age groups into the Donegal League for the first time, marking a significant milestone in their journey. The profile of female footballers has never been higher in this country following Ireland’s first World Cup appearance. Thanks to the FAI for all their support of the Girls and we can’t wait to watch their development go from strength to strength. The future is bright and it’s just a matter of time before we have girls following in the legacy of current Irish squad members Amber Barrett, Tyler Toland and Erin Mc Laughlin.