Saturday, March 5th 2022 will be a landmark day for women’s football at the club when our U17 team takes part in an EA SPORTS Women’s National League (WNL) game for the very first time.
The Lilywhites, who are one of eight teams in Group B, will travel to Bohemians on the opening day of a nine-month season that will run all the way through to the U17 Cup final on October 29th.
Bernard Freeman, who has been installed as the Head of Women’s Football at the club, said that Dundalk’s entry into the WNL was the culmination of an initial five-year plan that was set in motion back in 2016.
“Entering a team into the WNL is something that we have been looking to do for the past five years,” he told dundalkfc.com. “We started the girls off in the Metropolitan Girls League (MGL) and they worked their way up through the divisions.
“During that time they won two league titles and a cup and we feel the time is now right for them to move into the WNL. It won’t be that big of a jump for them. They have played against teams like Peamount and DLR Waves in the MGL so I feel we will be competitive.”
With the first objective now met, Freeman said that this year also marks the beginning of a new phase of development that will pave the way for the club to add an U19 and a senior women’s team to the ranks by 2026.
“One of the conditions that we had to meet in order to receive a licence from the FAI was to demonstrate a pathway from kids football to Women’s National League level.
“This year we will be entering a team, made up of U15 players, into the U16 MGL. They will be coached by Stephen Finnegan and the idea is for them to play in that league for two years and then progress on to become our WNL U17 team in 2024.
“This year’s U17 team will move on to become our WNL U19 team in 2024 and then become a Women’s National League senior side in 2026. Behind that, we’ll have players coming through every two years.”
The first rung of the ladder is at underage level where Dundalk will link up with the Louth Schoolgirls League.
“The Louth Schoolgirls League finishes at U16 level so we will be looking to recruit the best players from north of the county for our U16 MGL team in 2024,” explained Freeman.
“That’s how we intend to build the full pathway and in 2026, we hope to have an U16 team in the MGL and an U17, U19 and senior women’s team in the WNL. That is the five-year plan we have set out in front of us.”
The club had hoped to enter an U19 team in this year’s WNL but Freeman said that wasn’t possible due to the criteria set out by the FAI.
“You can’t just start at U19 level,” he said. “The FAI insist that you start at U17 and then work your way up to senior level. You have to progress your way through the system.
“Last year, we had a team in the North East Women’s Football League that we were hoping to enter into the WNL but we just weren’t able to do that.
“It was tough to break that news to the players and their parents but we have done our best to find all of those girls a club and we will also give them every opportunity to earn their coaching badges or refereeing badges at the club as well.”
Anticipation is building ahead of the club’s maiden WNL campaign. Head coach Roberto Bonello, who will be assisted by coaches Phil Cox and Pat Campbell, has finalised his squad and the U17s have already taken part in two pre-season matches, beating Bohs 3-1 at the weekend.
“As well as the girls who have progressed from our U16 team, we also have a lot of players who have come from big clubs in Dublin and that shows they have faith in us and in what we are trying to do here,” said Freeman.
“I think we have gone about things the right way,” he added. “A lot of clubs try and do it quickly and throw teams in left, right and centre. It works for a year or two and then it falls apart.
“We have taken it slowly. We started two teams at U12 and U14 level and they both developed in the MGL. Unfortunately, we can’t go forward with both of them at the minute but the blueprint is there for us and we want to keep it going over the next five years.”
Entering a team at national level comes at a cost and Freeman said the club was hoping to attract sponsors for both the U17 WNL team and the U16 MGL side.
“When we had teams solely competing in the MGL, we were reliant on parents to give the girls a lift to games and also to pay for things,” he said. “Now that we’re in the WNL, there are a lot of expenses on things like buses, meals and coaches.
“We have done everything right up to now and we will keep doing that but it would be great if we could get some sponsors on board.
“There is national exposure there for a company who wants to put their logo on the front of our jerseys and be associated with the very first Dundalk team to play in the WNL so we would encourage anybody who would be interested in sponsoring us to get in contact with somebody at the club.”
DUNDALK FC WNL U17 SQUAD 2022: Caoimhe Magee, Kelly Pease, Maggie Holland, Abigaile Martin, Laura Woods, Zara Farrell, Ciara Whyte, Jennifer Freeman, Sarah Byrne, Molly Williams, Madelaine McKinley, Grace Kelly, Robyn Chidgey, Charlotte Fogerty, Cer McSherry, Ellie Smyth, Toyah Hennessy, Emma Goodman.