A Woman’s Place is at the Match

It’s rare that I ever feel conscious of the fact I’m a woman while attending a football match. A recent visit to the Athlone Town Stadium was an unusual exception for two reasons: there was a female line official and I was only female supporter (that I could see!) in a crowd of about 100 away fans.

Unfortunately, some of the City support on the night – many of whom choose to wear no club colours – decided it was appropriate to indulge in the usual ‘Get your t**s out for the lads’ chants or, when there was a poor decision, that criticism should include references to her gender.

Referees and their officials are most likely well used to abuse and criticism from supporters. I don’t have an issue with that – I frequently have a few choice words to say myself – however, there’s no place for sexism in football, especially idiots that get slapped on the back for roaring ‘Women have no place in football’ at a lines official just doing what she’s there to do.

I was recently part of a discussion panel that touched on a couple of topics around Women in Football at an FC United of Manchester event at Gigg Lane in Bury (Full Video here). The panel included a FIFA official Jane Simms who recently refereed one of the club’s League fixtures and apparently received considerable admiration for the way she officiated on the day.

The question that took everyone’s interest was a simple one: FC United have had two female referees in recent times – one had a poor day and one had an impressive day. Simms was asked her thoughts, and her answer was both honest and genuine: she wished to be judged by her performance only – not the fact she was a woman – and pointed out that she was equally capable of having a poor day at the office. The same as any male colleague.

So, why then is it the case that gender is still part of the narrative for any woman involved in football?

I don’t want to see more female officials in the game just because they are women. I’d like to see better officials in the game and, if they are women, great. However, equally, because women’s participation in sport lags so far behind our male counterparts – for many, mostly historical reasons – we do need to focus on how we can change mindsets, funding arrangements, facilities and organisations in the first place to allow women’s sports lay stronger foundations, on which so much can then be built.

I’m not usually the only female supporter in the away end at Cork City fixtures, I must add. There are plenty of female supporters at the club but I see them as fans and not ‘fellow female fans’. We don’t have a ‘sisterhood’, but we do probably know each other to see as we do stand out just a little more. How did I cop that there were no other women in the away section? When I went to the Ladies toilets at half time, the door was pulled shut, the light was off and I didn’t see a single other woman while there! A quick look at the stand after half time confirmed my suspicion.

When I first went on the Board of Cork City FC, I was one of four women (of a total of ten) involved. Looking back now it was an incredible time and I’m not sure I can see that happening again – at least not in the near future. What did those women bring to the Board? Expertise, skills, life experience – the same as their male counterparts. As one of my managers once said to me: a management group needs different points of view, varying backgrounds, friction and discussion etc. to succeed.  However, it also needs to be able to work together and move forward in spite of the same differences to ensure it is a strong collective.

The UK Sports Minister, an MP by the name of Helen Grant, suggested in February that women can “look absolutely radiant and very feminine” while participating in such sports as ballet, cheerleading and roller-skating. 

I think (and hope) that she probably meant that the choice is important to get women involved but it is interesting that the reasons we believe sport is so good for boys and men (activity, being part of a team, learning to win and lose, making friends etc) are rarely cited girls and women as considerations. 

I grew up just outside Cork city and the main organised sport open to girls was the martial art Tae Kwon Do, which I practiced for seven to eight years. It was only when I went to all-girls secondary school that I had the chance to play an organised team sport, and even then participation wasn’t really encouraged after Junior Cert. PE also stopped being a compulsory subject after 4th year.

At the same time, I’ve been delighted to see schoolgirls’ sports develop in recent years. It’s wonderful to see schoolgirl clubs attending Cork Women’s FC matches (and the advent of the Women’s National League in general), and my own local junior GAA club now has a camogie set up at underage level. There are efforts being made, and these need to be supported, encouraged and continued if the impact is to be felt in the longer term.

The bottom line? Not all women want to play or participate in sport. That’s their choice. However, sport has a lot to give society and its communities, women are an integral part of both and need to be enabled (for want of a better word!) to be heard and get involved as a result.


What’s left to say about Schumacher?

I spent some time yesterday rooting in boxes and cupboards around my house, searching from a letter I received from Monaco about 14 years ago or so. The initials of the logo at the top of the page form the outline of a racing car, it’s addressed to me personally and contains a quick note to thank me for my “good wishes”. It’s signed (or squiggled) by Michael Schumacher.

Schu_letter

My interest in Formula 1, and Schumacher in particular, became more than passing phase during the 1995 season when our respective choice of driver left my older brother & I at loggerheads. He supported Damon Hill, I opted for Schumacher – and one of us never looked back!

The British media’s adversity towards Schumacher only helped his cause in my eyes, and it very quickly became apparent that F1′s heir apparent was a very special driver indeed. However impressive his days at Benetton (can we sneak Jordan in there for a mention?!), many of his ultimately supreme days would come in the red of Ferrari – where he brought new meaning to the idea of galvanising a team around their driver.

There were spectacular wins – none more memorable than his win in the rain in Spain in 1996, where he lapped up to three seconds faster than every other car out on track, or the French Grand Prix in 2004 where a daring and high-risk 4 pit stop strategy allowed him outwit and outrace the rest of the grid (a rare enough occurrence even then).

He was no angel – as his clashes with Hill and Jacques Villeneuve demonstrate – but apart from the Fernando Alonso-Lewis Hamilton spat, when was there last a decent rivalry in the sport? Remember (briefly) wondering if Schumacher could finish the race with three wheels after his clash with David Coulthard in 1998? He was THAT good.

And a sport is exactly what Formula 1 is – a point Schumacher, more than any other driver, showed time and time again. It was his approach to fitness and preparation that heralded a huge sea change in the 1990s. It was Schumacher that led a niche group of drivers capable of making up the difference between an average car and a race-winning car for over a decade, and it was Schumacher who brought personality, mental toughness and an edge to a racing discipline that suffers from bouts of blandness on occasion.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Schumacher race on two occasions. First, at the Canadian Grand Prix in 2001, where he was beaten into second place by his brother Ralf and then at the Belgian Grand Prix a year later where we had prime seats to view the fantastic run down to Eau Rouge (absolutely awesome and worth every cent!) and see Michael receive his winner’s trophy. I’ve said it often over the years but there really is no comparison to being at the races themselves and hearing, smelling and seeing the racing close up.

I finally got a chance to see the man himself close up and in ‘real’ life at the Race of Champions event in London five years ago. Schumacher joined forces with an up-and-coming starlet by the name of Sebastian Vettel to represent Germany in the team competition – and even though it was just for ‘fun’, the duo were streets ahead of the rest.

What astonished me was the fuss that followed him everywhere he went that day. When Schumacher arrived at the press briefings (I did get to ask a question – very exciting!), a whole gaggle of people would follow and inch closer – eager to get his views on every possible topic. Walking down the corridor, he was greeted by shouts of ‘Schumi’ from anxious autograph hunters, and even the other ‘celebrity’ participants seemed in awe of the man from Kerpen, whose childhood wasn’t a million miles away from normal by anyone else’s standards.

And it was that back story – of knowing Schumacher overcame so many hurdles to get to the pinnacle of motor racing, before going on to rewrite the record books – that led me, following his crash at Silverstone in 1999, to send him a card with a grizzly bear holding his foot (he broke his leg – god, the cheese when I think about it…), and wish him all the best for the future.

I’d like to do so again about now, and just pay my own small tribute to the man that has inspired so many in such different ways. Godspeed a full recovery Michael.


Two cities, two clubs – but only one Alan Bennett…

A piece I worked on with AFC Wimbledon captain Alan Bennett earlier this year about his time at Cork City FC and the Dons, amongst other things…

Two cities, two clubs – but only one Alan Bennett…

Founded in 2002, AFC Wimbledon is a well-known name to anyone interested in the issue of Fan Ownership in football. The Dons hold the distinction of being promoted five times in nine seasons and will ply their trade once again in League Two – thanks in no small way to former Cork City FC centre half Alan Bennett.

A central element of CCFC’s League-winning squad in 2005, 31-year-old Bennett is captain of AFC Wimbledon for the new term, and took some time out to catch up with City Edition.

“When asked about my CCFC days, I always wonder should I start with following the team of ‘93 from a grassy bank at Turner’s Cross, watching Derek Coughlan’s header in Dalymount Park or going to reserve games in Ballinhassig?

“For me personally it started with a youths game in which my local club, Richmond, played against Cork City youths. I was asked to come in after that, and what followed was a great year as our group won the league, national cup and some additional silverware under Paul Bowdren and Stuart Ashton.

“My senior debut came in the Intertoto Cup against FK Liepajas Metalurgs. I brought my boots ‘just in case’ so coming on as second half sub was incredible. There was a header at the back post that I might have scored and for the away game in Latvia, I played in midfield due to my energy and running ability.

“The club was moving forward into a professional era at that stage. The collapse of the ITV deal meant younger players were being released and coming home from the UK. It meant no more smoking on the bus, no more gravy at pre-match meals, a slight increase in money and full-time training for some.

“I learned to work hard in every training session under Murp (Liam Murphy) and that graft also gets you a long way. Pat Dolan took over in 2003 – and love him or loath him, he was brilliant entertainment. Training was never dull and we made strides in Europe with trips to Malmo, Nijmegen, Nantes, Limassol, and Belgrade. The home games for those fixtures were magic: the energy in Turner’s Cross was incredible and the passion of people immense.

“Pre-season 2005, and Pat was replaced by Damien Richardson. The next season was steadier and with the groundwork in place, we went on to win the league and should have claimed the double. The final game will always be a beautiful memory for me. My grandfather – in his elder years – tore onto the pitch at the final whistle with family, friends and loved ones. Celebrations in the Shed End, fans and players in it together – only people there that night understand how special it was.”

So, the move to Reading?

“In December 2006 Damien asked me to his house in Bishopstown. I sat in his back garden – he talked, and I got a dictionary out. In hindsight he was telling me to prepare for a move to the UK, though at the time I thought he was sharing the secret of life!

“The move itself was done during the last days of the window. Damien called me to his house and I took his dogs for a walk. I left them off the leash and while one stared at me, the other shot off into the fields. Damien wandered out to find me missing a dog, and 15 minutes of whistling later, the suspense ended and I was told that I had been sold to Reading FC.

“We played Man United in my first game that summer. I also got called into the Irish squad and played during a tour of the US. A difficult loan move to Southampton followed, before another loan move to Brentford FC – where I won a league winners medal. I was also promoted with Wycombe and later reached a play-off final with Cheltenham.”

Next stop, AFC Wimbledon and the captain’s armband…

“In January of last season, having captained Cheltenham to the play-off final, I got a call from Neal Ardley (the Wimbledon manager). I wanted to return to London as that’s where I’m based and although it was going to be a massive challenge to get a team in the bottom two out of the relegation zone in half a season, it was an offer that suited me perfectly.

“The history of the club is everywhere and the passion of the people who run it and follow it became evident during the final run in when we were desperate for results. Fans openly voiced their concerns after some bad results, but the support for the club is incredible for a League Two team with average gates of between 4,000-5,000.

“For me, Fan Ownership is an effective way to maintain common sense at a football club, within an industry that lacks common sense. It’s democratic and supporters get to make decisions with regard to all aspects of the club; the only issue being that it’s a lot to ask fans to contribute to the budget and to pay to support the team as well.

“There are obvious similarities between Cork City and AFC Wimbledon. They are fan owned, both are former glories ripped apart by greed, both are being rebuilt by the people for the people, and with past players now managing the clubs, both are now looking optimistically towards the future.

“The season ahead will be AFC (A Fans’ Club!) Wimbledon’s third in the Football League. We, as a group of players, have a duty to preserve and move this club forward and that’s the plan for the season. There are a few rebel Wombles in the crowd and I do recognise the odd ‘Come On Benno Boy’ in the unmistakeable Cork accent. Of course, a few more are always welcome when the league of Ireland wraps up!

- Benno


Following in family footsteps…

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I always feel a tug on my heart every time I leave Turner’s Cross for the last time at the end of each season. Last Friday night was no different, though it was that little extra special to watch the game with my brother (a rare enough occasion these days, as he’s exiled).

Our Dad grew up on Derrynane Road, and it was his Dad that first encouraged us down to the Cross to watch City. We waited three entire games for our first CCFC goal (a Kelvin Flanagan penalty), and we whole heartedly agreed with Grandad’s theory that if you stood in, in front of, or near the Shed, you would at least get a few laughs from the crowd if the game wasn’t great.

The last time I spoke to him before he died, City had secured the result they needed to take their League challenge down to the wire (2004) and I rang in to update him after the full-time whistle blew. On the night he died, after a brief illness, the squad was being presented with their runners up medals. He was never a fan of Pat Dolan (too much talk!), but did believe that the same squad had real potential, and would be proved right the following season.

As we move into November, he’s nine years gone and yet the banter, the craic and the memories still seem like yesterday.

My Grandmother passed on a couple of years later, and while I was helping my own Dad clear out their house, we came across a number of keepsakes: an old edition of a Stanley Matthews’ biography, a history of Cork soccer book and a huge stack of old programmes and news clippings.

We also came across some of my early attempts at being a football journalist and some hand written notes underlining the importance of having an opinion – though an opinion backed up with logic and reason.

He was a trade unionist, a keen follower of politics, a lover of all things Cork, a story teller and a family man. He would sneak me the odd €20 ‘for a couple of pints’ whenever I was setting off down to hill to the Curragh Road, and more than anything – as a man who believed in people power – I believe he would be fully behind and proud of what we’re trying to achieve with Cork City FC, through FORAS, today.

That’s what football is and should always be about – family, and following in their footsteps…


Attendances – the biggest stick of them all

One of the biggest sticks consistently used to beat the League of Ireland with is that of attendances, or rather the lack of them. Compared to the Premier League and even Championship, the numbers are meagre but when put into a different context, the situation is not so straight forward.

During our research for the Improving Football Governance project, we uncovered an interesting and unexpected stat that I have been repeating time and time again since – to whoever would listen!

According to a Uefa benchmarking report, nearly half (48%) of top-flight clubs have an average attendance of less than 3,000. Quite suddenly, perhaps the League of Ireland doesn’t figure as poorly after all.

There was an outcry recently when a late decision to televise the Cork City and Shelbourne match on a Thursday evening, moving it from an already-refixed date on a Saturday, left away fans out of pocket.

Having already made arrangements for the Saturday fixture, many simply couldn’t travel on the new date because of work commitments. As a result, the attendance on the night – as it was also a ‘school night’ for Cork City’s home crowd – was significantly reduced. It’s also worth mentioning that there is no longer any bonus money for having your game shown on television.

It goes without saying that attendances have everything to do with a team’s form. There have been some great crowds seen at Dundalk and St. Pat’s this year. Champions Sligo Rovers, on the other hand, have seen a dip in numbers – according to their manager – as a result of their failure to challenge for another League title and Cork City, too, have seen a decrease.

The situation in the First Division is even more worrying, and has been for some time. While over 2,000 people witnessed Athlone Town become champions, crowds are typically more a couple of hundred people rather than anywhere near a couple of thousand.

Screen shot 2013-09-30 at 20.15.15Mid-week fixtures in a League that is effectively part-time don’t help in the slightest, though they are fewer in number this season.

There was plenty of chat online on Social Media during Cork City’s trip to The Showgrounds a few weeks ago when one lone CCFC fan was snapped in the away stand.

He was later joined by three more hardy comrades but considering that Sligo is usually an overnight trip, arranging a Monday night game gave away supporters little or no chance of making the 10-hour round trip.

Screen shot 2013-09-30 at 20.14.48

Keeping track of the fortunes of our senior team, it’s easy to understand that Irish football fans – generally – are not as likely to attend a live football game as opposed to watching a fixture on television or in a pub.

The FAI, like League clubs, are struggling to convince Irish sports fans that being there is what counts the most and until that point of view gains some ground, we will all continue to suffer when results dip.

I know club officials that shake their heads when they hear one of their home games is on TV. Television coverage almost always affects gates and with no financial compensation to make up the difference, it can be the difference in making wage and bill payments a struggle for that fortnight or not. It’s time to understand and concede that we are a nation of event junkies and that there’s no easy fix.

The alternative solution, of course, is to become less dependent on gate income. That’s easier said than done in the current economy though, especially given that decent crowds, in turn, always attract more interest in – and usually more lucrative – sponsorship deals. A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say; just as it’s hard, if near impossible, to escape a spiraling whirlpool without significant intervention, change or simple hard-won luck.

And it’s there, within that downwards creep, that you’ll see the real fear. The ‘fear’ that any change or initiative might negatively impact or dent the existing crowds (that clubs fight hard to retain), so as to ensure the drive to do something different simply can’t be risked. The ‘fear’ that another bad season will be the tipping point, and perhaps the ultimate ‘fear’ that there will be no upsurge or Spring tide at all.

So… how can the League move forward? Like anything in life, it’s about taking a long, honest and critical look at where we are, focusing on what’s possible in the short and longer term, and putting both the findings (warts and all…) and plans out into the public domain so all efforts can be measured and improved upon.


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