Athlone Town director of football Michael O’Connor has made a passionate plea to the Government to support the League of Ireland and help it fully realise its potential.
O’Connor is Athlone’s all-time leading goalscorer and also managed the club in the 1990s. He watched the midlanders lift the Sports Direct Women’s FAI Cup at Tallaght Stadium on Sunday after a thrilling penalty shootout win over Shelbourne.
It sparked scenes of unbridled joy among the players, coaching staff and supporters, but O’Connor said such occasions raise more questions than answers when it comes to the overall health of the game in Ireland.
“It’s huge for the club, it’s huge for the women’s section of our club and I hope that maybe something like that sort of drives the Government to start funding the Women’s National League and the academy structure,” he said.
“These are athletes, they are being treated miserably by the Government. The League of Ireland clubs are trying to run academies, boys’ academies, keeping them off the streets, trying to run senior football and they’re not being treated properly.”
Under the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Government and the FAI, which led to the association’s bailout in 2020, the FAI was tasked with having 40% female representation on the board by the end of this year. They have yet to achieve that target, and face funding cuts if it’s not addressed.
Last week Minister for Sport Thomas Byrne told the Seanad: “What will happen, unfortunately, is that when we announce equipment grants in the new year, if the national governing body doesn’t have 40% gender balance, then there will only be 50% awarded in terms of the grant.”
O’Connor could not hide his frustration with the situation, adding: “We’re paying for the sins that the FAI did years ago and now straight away we have government ministers saying if we don’t have 40% [female representation] because of the MOU, that the FAI money will be cut.
“How can you cut funding for an academy structure when you’re not giving any? It’s not about sport or treating people properly. What about keeping kids off the streets?
“What about the kids that get scholarships to universities or scholarships to college? Look at the lives we affect. Listen, our facilities in this country are a disgrace.
“It seems to me we’re at a table and any scraps are left, are going to League of Ireland. Sure we don’t get anything.
“We’re like the bad schoolkid that is made sit in the corner and behave yourself or you don’t get anything. I’m not part of the FAI, I’m just an ordinary guy who has to charge kids to play football, charge their parents.
“Some parents can’t afford it. If we don’t get it, we don’t sort of pursue people. But there is no funding coming in for it and there is more stuff going on, social things happening.”