Olivia O'Toole: 'I'd love us to have been treated better - with the travel and the tracksuits, it hasn't really changed'Fri, Apr 03 2020
The sight of the national team playing in an empty stadium last month will have brought back familiar memories for anyone from the previous generations of Irish footballers.
A 3-0 win over Montenegro in Budva last month was job done for Vera Pauw’s side as fans were restricted from accessing the venue due to early measures to halt the spread of coronavirus.
A record 5,328 packed into Tallaght to watch the Girls in Green see off Ukraine back in October, and more would have had absentee season ticket holders not taken and left idle the remaining 2,500.
It’s in stark contrast to the 1990s and early 2000s when Olivia O’Toole, Ireland’s second most-capped player and record goalscorer, amassed her 130-odd caps for her country.
Today’s numbers, Montenegro notwithstanding, would have been unimaginable five years ago – let alone 20, when a crowd in the low three figures was the norm rather than the exception.
Coaches Mick Cooke and Noel King worked with the squad, against the odds, to attract fans to Richmond Park – the latter taking them all the way to a Euro play-off with Iceland in 2008.
Still, it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for players to be presented with stacks of posters to hand out or stick up as late as the morning of the match.
“I was talking to a girl [recently] and she was like ‘what did yous do when yous played matches,” O’Toole tells extratime.ie.
“I said when we played matches we got handed posters when we were stripping for the matches going out to play. It was never advertised.
“The only people that came to our matches was family and friends. Whereas now, it’s all over Twitter. It’s well-promoted now and rightly so.”
The outstanding success of the 2019 World Cup in France brought unprecedented visibility to women’s football and that has been reflected in a participation boom in Ireland and across Europe.
Just two years earlier, the national team had been forced to threaten strike action ahead of a friendly game with Slovakia over long-standing grievances in working conditions.
The revelation that players were forced to share tracksuits with underage teams, changing in the airport following away trips, understandably made the headlines.
However, the deeper issue was the fact amateur players weren’t even entitled to compensation for lost earnings, symptomatic of the what little value was placed on those representing their country.
The Ladies Football Association of Ireland – later the Women’s Football Association of Ireland, before being subsumed by the FAI – existed on stipends as low as £20,000 in the 90s.
While the men’s national team were regulars at World Cups and European Championships, the women’s team was pulled from international competition for three years from 1992 to 1995.
Things have undoubtedly improved since – the number of players at professional clubs abroad has raised expectations – there is still a sense not enough is being done.
“I’d have loved us to be treated better. With the travel and the tracksuits, it hasn’t really changed.
“This early bird flight where you’re out at 6am, get to Russia at 3pm and then have to travel another nine hours to where you need to be. It’s only little things, but these things matter.
“We sat on a bus for nine hours straight in Russia. I was like, ‘is there any left or right turns in this town?’ It was draining, it was stressful – it wasn’t thought out well.
“The men got to the quarter final of the World Cup (in 1990) and they got a pat on the back, ‘well done lads, you done brilliant,’ but it wasn’t built on.
“When we went to Iceland and had a play-off, which never should have been played. It was played on an ice rink.
“That’s was our first time in the play-offs to get to the Euros, and I don’t think they build on that either.”
Following her goalscoring debut against Spain in 1992, O’Toole quickly found herself on the radar of overseas clubs.
Along with fellow internationals Emma Byrne, Yvonne Tracy and Ciara Grant, the striker was offered terms by Arsenal, then the dominant team in European football.
Whereas the other three opted to make the move and carve out semi-professional careers, O’Toole opted to stay at home and work.
“When they went over there, we were offered at the time I think £150 and work in the launderette washing the senior men’s laundry.
“I was like, ‘I ain’t leaving my family for £150 or nothing like it.’ I didn’t go, but Emma and Ciara did. That was when Arsenal had been the top team for 15 years.
“The likes of Katie [McCabe] going over now, if I was playing football now I’d be thriving. I’d try to get a professional contract in England because there’s nothing here still.
“I was asked to go to America as well [on a scholarship], but the thing that I took issue with was the schooling part. To me, that was daunting because I was out of school.
“I’d left school when I was 13 – not that I’m stupid or anything, but I just didn’t do schooling. To me, at 22 or 23, going to a college, it was daunting to me.
“Four of us got offered it and only one took it – Claire Scanlon. She’s in Japan now coaching.”
O’Toole won eight FAI Cup medals and numerous league titles during stints with Castle Rovers (later Shamrock Rovers) and Raheny United.
Until recently, she was coach of Dublin side St Catherine’s but, with little scope for career advancement in the Irish game, the cost of pursuing coaching badges wasn’t worth it.
“The only thing I went up to was the youth badge, because the UEFA A and UEFA B are €3,500-4,500 to do, and I don’t have that sort of money.
“I managed St Catherine’s Girls under-18s for four years and, as you know, they start smelling themselves and not turning up for training, not turning up for matches, and that broke down.”
O’Toole has recently taken the reins of the newly-formed women’s team at Ringsend-based side St Patrick’s CY, though the coronavirus outbreak has delayed its beginning.
The shutdown of football across the island has also delayed the beginning of the new Eastern Women’s Football League, which had been due to launch this month.
The amalgamation of the Dublin Women’s Soccer League and Metropolitan Girls League seeks to solve the anomaly of two competing adult leagues in the greater Dublin area.
With the Women’s National League and underage national league gaining in popularity, there are chinks of light on the horizon for the game in this country.
“When I was playing football I played with the boys. I went out 15 years of age with under-16 Sheriff to the Phoenix Park, played a match, went up for a header and busted a youngfella’s nose.
“He went to hit me and they were all like, ‘you can’t hit her.’ That’s the only time they found out I was a girl.
“There was a big uproar in the Herald and I actually got that rule changed, for girls to be able to play up to age 16 or 17. There was no girls’ teams then.
“The first girls’ team I played with was when I was 19, Drumcondra Ladies. I was playing from 16 up with Sheriff boys. I went from 16 and 17 to play with girls in their 30s or late 20s.
“There was nothing there for me from 16 up. Now they are doing something about it and building it up, because that bracket, from 16 to 18, is not a terrible bracket.
“The girls under 16 had nowhere to go because the only team was under-19s. Now they have the under-17s league and it’s properly done.”