DLR Waves’ preseason preparations are well underway, but for many, the arrival of fresh gear is the ultimate sign that the excitement and build-up to a new campaign can truly begin.
On a drizzly January morning this week, Waves continued to put everything in place ahead of the new Women’s National League (WNL) season including the arrival of their new kit.
As extratime.com watched on the players rounded off a successful morning’s training with some 11-a-side action. It’s a game played with the same intensity as a crucial league clash, which is unsurprising.
Competition key for Kelly
As manager Graham Kelly notes, there are 22 players in this Waves team, “two players for every position”, so there is fierce competition for a first-team spot.
That level of hunger is precisely what Kelly and his backroom staff want to see in their team this year. Waves finished fourth in the league last season, well ahead of the chasing pack, yet still 16 points off Shelbourne, Peamount United and Wexford Youths at the summit.
While the success of the Big Three is largely down to squads amply stocked with talent and experience, their large and dedicated fanbase is undoubtedly a major advantage.
Generating that solid core of supporters has always been difficult for Waves. As Kelly explains: “It’s tough for us because we don’t even have a home. We train in Marlay Park, we train in Ballybrack, and we play in the UCD Bowl. It’s great in the summer because we go down to UCD and we train there and the link to UCD is great.
“That part of it is really challenging for me and for other members because we want to keep a sense of professionalism for the girls, but it can be challenging when you don’t have a base to work out of. For clubs like Shelbourne, Bohs, and Athlone, they will benefit from having a home and having the fanbase that they have.”
With the lack of a readymade core of enthusiastic supporters which you can feed off in tight games, the lion’s share of passion and dedication must come from the team themselves. Thankfully, Waves have that in spades, something that becomes clear when watching this training game. That enthusiasm is the result of a considered approach by Kelly when enlisting new recruits to his roster.
“We bring a lot of players in,” he notes, “and we focus not just on their ability, but their personality as well – how they will fit into the group.”
Dodd looking to deliver
If Mia Dodd is any indication, the new arrivals at Waves will fit seamlessly into the squad.
Positioned in front of a back three, Dodd remained focused and energetic throughout the training game. Her superb vision allowed her to deliver useful balls for her forwards to run onto, while she also demonstrated sumptuous footwork and skill to navigate through opposition tackles. It is no wonder she is a player that Kelly admits he has been trying to sign for the last two-and-a-half seasons.
She will only be 20 by the time the league kicks off in March, but Dodd bears all the elements of a seasonal WNL player. Not that it’s any great surprise; Dodd has been playing football since she was four years old. “My cousin, he was six, and he was going off to training and I was trying to go with him,” Dodd reveals. “So, he brought me over and I’ve been playing ever since.”
Playing initially with Lourdes Celtic from the age of eight, Dodd then moved to Shelbourne, working her way through the underage teams, while earning call-ups to Ireland underage teams. She made her senior debut for Shels in 2019 and was part of the team that won the league in dramatic fashion last November, their first since 2016.
Last season Shels were two points behind league leaders Peamount heading into the final round, and needed not only a win against Wexford, but also required Galway United to beat the defending champions. Dodd gave an insight into what must have been a nervy couple of days.
“The whole week leading up to it, we felt that belief”, she recalls. “We were all imagining what it would be like if we won it, but we still knew it was in Peamount’s hands. With Waves getting the draw the week before, there was even more of a belief that it could happen.”
“On the day, the atmosphere in Tolka was just unbelievable,” Dodd continued. “Anytime Galway scored, the whole crowd would scream. I think Peamount were still playing when our final whistle went, but everyone just knew we had it.”
As well as that winning mentality, Kelly is hoping Dodd can also bring the variety to her game that distinguishes her as a bright prospect for the future.
“Mia can play in a number of roles, which is brilliant for us,” Kelly elaborates. “There is fierce competition in the middle of the park, and Mia is aware of that. Her work rate is phenomenal, and she is in peak condition for this time of the season as well. But you can see in the game that she’ll get strikes away and she’ll get goals; that’s something we look at when we’re bringing new players in.”
Indeed, one of the main objectives for the manager this season is to develop a greater sharpness in attack; it is at the forefront of thinking when making new acquisitions. “We brought Lynn Craven in, and defensively, she will be able to cover both full-back positions. She’s a really experienced player who has just won an FAI Cup.
“Sophie Watters is similar to Mia in that she can play a number of different positions. She has play up top, and on the wing as well. Sarah McKevitt is another winger that will score goals and we’ve just signed Orla Fitzpatrick as well, a really exciting young player from Peamount, so attack is more what we’re aiming to improve this season.”
Kelly and his team have already made significant progress in defence. Waves conceded 64 goals in the 2019 season. Last year, they shipped 24 - only two more than the champions Shelbourne. Now, the manager has turned his attention to making things happen at the other end of the pitch.
“We know we’re close”, Kelly adds, “but Peamount, Wexford and Shels are three very experienced teams. You can see with our girls that it’s quite a young bunch but really talented. I think we can close that gap and hopefully, we can put in more of a challenge.”
Growth in the women’s game
Waves are determined to disrupt the dominance of the Big Three, which is good news for not only the players and staff at the South Dublin club, but also for the WNL itself. The addition of a fourth contender to the title race is precisely what will help the league to capitalise on the excitement generated by 2021’s gripping climax.
The increased interest in the league reflects the general surge in the popularity of women’s football in Ireland. With the national side finding their form under Vera Pauw and causing a stir in the World Cup qualifying campaign, that passion is slowly beginning to trickle down to the domestic game.
Certainly, Kelly has noticed the growth in interest in the women’s game: “We played Shels at the Bowl – it was an unbelievable game, with Shels winning 2-1 - but there were over 300 tickets sold that day. For a club like us to sell 300 tickets, that was a lot. But the atmosphere that day and the buzz around the place was special.
“There have been loads of games like that – the televised game was another one, and Peamount at the end of the season. But I think the game as a whole is progressing, and we can do things on the pitch that will make people want to come and watch, it would be brilliant.”
With the rise in popularity and media coverage, surely the next step for the women’s game is to strike while the iron is hot and go semi-professional. However, Kelly believes that while the game has made major strides, semi-professional status is still just beyond the reach of certain clubs currently.
“I know some clubs are paying players this year, but financially, it’s difficult for a club like us as we’re a stand-alone club so we don’t have a men’s section that are helping us fund and raise money.”
“We have to try and get sponsorship in and help the players as best we can. Hopefully, somewhere down the line, we can provide expenses to play for their petrol money. Personally, I think it would be a brilliant move if the FAI could come in with some more funding, but I think we’re still a few years away from that, to be honest.”
Returning the focus to the not-too-distant future, then, it is time to outline seasonal ambitions. Waves’ objective is simple: control the controllables, and push for improved league position.
Meanwhile, the natural assumption is that Dodd will be aiming to establish herself as a key Waves player, ultimately putting herself on Pauw’s radar for an Ireland call-up. However, Dodd demonstrates a genuine selflessness when outlines her main goal in 2022.
“Because I haven’t played as much recently, my main ambition is to try and play every game this year,” Dodd states. “I’ve always thought about getting to the senior Ireland side, but my main ambition is to play as much as possible; if that comes with it, I’d be delighted with it, but it’s mainly to help the team this year.”
New gear. New players. New season. With any luck, a new team in the top three.
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