When Ireland manager Vera Pauw named her squad ahead of last October’s historic World Cup play-off win against Scotland, just three of her 28-player squad were playing in the Women’s National League – Áine O’Gorman, Abbie Larkin and Eve Badana.
he vast majority were plying their trade in the UK, including Arsenal captain Katie McCabe and Birmingham City’s Louise Quinn, while match-winner Amber Barrett lined out with Frauen-Bundesliga side FC Koln at the time.
All three, and many others had one thing in common, they all spent their formative years in the domestic league in Ireland. McCabe won league and cup honors with Raheny United, Quinn spent several successful seasons at Peamount United, as did Barrett, who picked up three successive golden boots with the Newcastle side.
West Ham United Women’s scout Chris Conway has been keeping tabs on Women’s Premier Division talent for the last two seasons, and hopes the domestic league can reach a point where players don’t have to move abroad in order to secure professional contracts, or to make it into the Ireland squad.
“I think the league will become massive here in the next few years,” Conway said.
“The league has certainly got stronger over the last two years. Although what you’d like to see is more players here moving into the Ireland squad, instead of having to go over to England and get a professional contract.
“I have been sent several players to watch for this season already. The U-19 league is really strong with a lot of great girls coming through too. When you look at the likes of Shelbourne, Shamrock Rovers and Wexford Youths, there’s massive work being done in the background with their academies. I believe the league can be huge in this country.”
Conway began scouting for the Hammers in 2021 and played a role in bringing former Shels stars Jess Ziu and Izzy Atkinson to the east London club. He says it wasn’t long before he realized the potential of the league.
“I was a few years coaching with St Kevin’s Boys/Bohemians, and then began to learn how to scout players,” said Conway.
“Before, I was involved in the men’s game all my life. I remember I was at Shelbourne against Peamount at Tolka Park in 2021, and that game (4-3) really opened my eyes. The crowd erupted when Noelle Murray scored the winner in the last minute. I was looking around thinking this really has potential.
“The opportunity to give someone their dream is what it’s all about. We all grew up as kids dreaming about becoming a footballer. To give someone a trial and see them make it as a professional footballer is amazing.”
Peas, Youths and back-to-back league champions Shels will face new opposition next term, as Shamrock Rovers enter a women’s side for the first time since 2013/’14. The Hoops have signed Ireland internationals like O’Gorman, Larkin and Stephanie Roche, and Conway believes the club’s inclusion will benefit the league in the long term.
“There is no doubt it’s good for the league, but at the same time I do feel sorry for clubs like Peamount,” said Conway.
“They have done massive work in the league over the last number of years. To see some big players move across to Rovers is disappointing, but they have the right to move. Rovers will have a big say this year and are getting big players in. It will shake up the league in 2023.”
The league kicks off on March 4, and Conway will be keeping his eyes peeled for the next Jess Ziu to emerge.
“There are a lot of things we look for, but tactical awareness, technique, work-rate, and good behavior on and off the pitch are the main things,” added Conway.