By Damian Dolan
On 25 November the ladies’ game in Britain will welcome its newest county, Yorkshire, and for Provincial Council president Tommie Donohue it’s a further sign of the progress being made.
Yorkshire will be comprise clubs from Sheffield (St Vincent’s), Newcastle (Caisléan Nua Tír na nÓg), Leeds (St Christopher’s) and York, and compete at Junior grade.
While Sheffield and York are brand new clubs, Newcastle and Leeds formed in 2016 and played Junior Championship in Scotland and Lancashire respectively this year. From 2018 they’ll have their own county, and their own board.
“They’re all set up and ready to go,” said Donohue. “It’s a massive development for Ladies football in Britain.
The addition of Yorkshire will bring the number of ladies’ counties to six, and augment the exiting counties of London, Lancashire, Scotland, Hertfordshire, Warwickshire and Glo-Herts (an amalgamation of Gloucestershire and Hertfordshire).
“They’ll be six counties in the Junior Championship next year, and if I’d said that a couple of years ago to people, they would have laughed their heads off,” added Donohue.
While it’s a sign of the ever-expanding appeal of the ladies’ game in Britain, it isn’t something that’s happened overnight. A huge amount of work has been put in to reach this point.
When Donohue retuned for a second spell as president, having also undertaken the role during the 1990s, he was faced with “many problems” with Britain in danger of being placed in the international unit, following the findings of a Croke Park delegation in 2013.
“That would have been a disaster for London and Britain, because you wouldn’t be able to play in the Club Championship,” he said.
Over the past four years, however, the game has gone from strength-to-strength. There have been 12 new clubs formed and three county boards, while the number of registered players has risen from 800-850 in 2013 to 1300-1400 in 2017.
“When I went in, there was about 20 clubs and it was in a really bad place, but it’s booming now. It’s going really, really well. We’re in a good place,” said Donohue.
“We’ve been very proactive since I took it over. What we’re trying to do is a massive development.”
That proactive approach included combining Gloucestershire and Hertfordshire to form a new county, Glo-Herts. While Cardiff’s St Colmcilles and Western Gaels of Bristol weren’t getting enough games in Gloucestershire, Eire Og of Oxford, Luton’s Claddagh Gaels and St Colmcilles from St Albans were competing in London and Warwickshire.
The Glo-Herts Board held its first AGM on 25 January 2015. They’ve since been augmented by Glen Rovers of Watford, and Cambridge Parnells, although the latter only in Sevens at present.
“They were a bit nervous about it at first, but they went for it and they’ve boomed since then. We went in and helped set up their board for them and now they’re running brilliantly,” said Donohue.
Bringing Scotland under the Provincial Council umbrella was another significant step, and in doing so gave them the incentive of being able to compete in the All Ireland Club Championship.
Perhaps the most significant advancement was in the introduction, in 2014, of the Northern Championship, which saw the Intermediate clubs from Scotland and Lancashire compete against each other, with the winner and runner up advancing to the All Britain semi-finals.
After competing in their own respective championships, this year that was Edinburgh’s Dunedin Connollys and John Mitchel’s of Liverpool, who saw off Glasgow Gaels and Oisins in the Northern Championship.
Waiting for them in the British semi-finals are the winner and runner up from the London (Southern) Intermediate Championship, which this year was former All Ireland winners and London heavyweights Parnells (managed by Donohue), and Round Towers.
For the first time since its inception, though, it was the two Northern sides who progressed to the final, with Mitchel’s coming out on top. Parnells’ semi-final defeat at the hands of Dunedin was their first in the All Britain for 24 years.
“The purpose was to create more games, otherwise the Lancashire and Scotland champions would be going straight into a Provincial semi-final having had no games,” explained Donohue.
“The whole idea was to promote the game and it’s been brilliant because it’s created a massive buzz up there. The game is booming in the north.
“You might think I’d be sick because Parnells lost, but I wasn’t it. It was great to see how much football has come on in three years.
“The British final was a cracker final between Mitchel’s and Dunedin, and then John Mitchel’s were only beaten by a goal in the last seconds against the Ulster champions.
“It’s all come about because we’ve got them all organised, and they’ve all brought into it brilliantly. Ladies football in Britain is in an unbelievable place at the moment.”
Huge strides, but the game’s rapid growth has created the need, for Donohue, for a full or part-time administrator in every county to work in conjunction with a development officer, if that progress is to be maintained and built upon.
“Our province is three times bigger than Ireland. It’s 1200 miles between the furthest club in Scotland and Parnells in Cambridge,” said Donohue, for whom 2018 will be his last as president unless Britain can get deviation from rule to allow him to stay beyond the new three-year term limit and continue the good work he’s started.
“For me, that’s the way forward – it’s full-time work. It’s getting so big, so fast, that we’re not capable of handling it.
“People don’t realise the demand for ladies’ football, and ladies’ teams [in Britain] can complete with ladies’ teams in Ireland, because of the non-physicality of the game, compared to the men’s game. Their skill gets them through.
“We’re not getting hammered anymore. Parnells broke the mould and John Mitchel’s only just lost to the Ulster champions, who were lucky to get out of Liverpool with the win.
“If we could get a handle on it, they’d be more All Irelands coming to the province, and maybe counties as well.”
It’s exciting times for the ladies’ game in Britain, and there could be better to come.