Posted: 3 weeks ago

Club of the Week: how forward thinking Faughanvale are successfully playing the numbers game and making the future of women’s football secure

ST Mary’s GAC, Faughanvale, based at Greysteel, Co Derry, made the forward thinking move to form a women’s football side in 1996 with fewer than 20 players.

Fast forward 28 years and that number has grown by over 100.

From a single team in 1996, St Mary’s now field five sides across U12, U14, U16, U18 and senior age groups.

And that growth has posed its own challenge.

In keeping with trend in women’s football across the country, but especially in rural areas, expansion and recruitment has to be ongoing to offset the turnover in players reaching their mid to late 20s.

It is then that life events kick in. Career and geographical moves, marriage and starting families all combine in competing for time devoted to football.

St Mary’s have lost seven starters from their senior team alone this year, chairman, and the club’s first women’s team manager, Eamon King explains.

But, with their commitment to women’s football woven into the fabric of the club down the years, the Vale are taking steps to ensure a continuous flow of players in to the ranks.

“We are proud of our underage structures, having identified the need at an early stage of the development of women’s football within the club,” Eamon points out.

“In particular we have introduced a primary schools programme, catering for 5 to 11 year olds which has begun producing players but it will take a while before the senior side sees the benefits.”

The schools programme is overseen by two former players, Joanne O’Donnell, head teacher at Faughenvale PS, and Aisling Moore.

Eamon appreciates their work and contribution, not just as chair, but having experienced, first hand, the time and effort required to keep the production line moving from his own stint as women’s senior team manager. 

Like all GAA volunteers, they invest a lot.

“It wasn’t easy, back in 96,” Eamon admits. “I had just become a parent and was thrown in at the deep end. Like a lot of jobs in the GAA, if you can do it, you get it to do.”

It became a labour of love, though, as Eamon relates.

“Two club stalwarts, Joe Lagan and Jock Groogan, had the vision to introduce women’s football to the club. The women’s game was embryonic then but look at the way it has blossomed, both in the club and across the country.

“It is thriving and that, in itself, presents challenges in terms of keeping up the number and providing them with playing opportunities and facilities deserving of their commitment.

“We really began to grow three or four years after the introduction of the senior team with the addition of the juniors and age group sides.

“We’ve enjoyed success, winning junior and intermediate county titles, and would love to compete in senior football, but, as things stand our intermediate status is at risk, having lost so many first team players this year, and may have to fight our way back up from junior level.

“Whatever happens, we’ve never stood still as a club and will rise to meet any challenges that come our way.”

The Vale’s track record in producing quality players will surely stand to them.

They have provided Derry with notable county players down the years, including Kerry King, Julie McLoughlin, Aisling Moore and her schools programme co-ordinating colleague Joanne O’Donnell.

Picking up the baton now in the seniors are key players like top scorer Brogan Bellew, hopefully soon to return new mum Kayleigh Fleming, Ciara McColgan, Shannon Moore, Saoirse Hasson, Claire Gunns and Eilish McCracken.

As they approach 30 years of women’s football within the club, the St Mary’s revolution has become an evolution and, thanks to the kind of forward thinking that led to is introduction, allied to that schools succession plan, the handover to the next Faughanvale generation will be seamless. 

St Mary’s GAC Faughanvale was established in 1933. A camogie team was founded in 1946 and affiliated to the club, before folding in 1989. Women’s football was introduced in 1996.

The club purchased its current grounds in 1982. Before this, football was played at the O’Neill family’s field on the Clooney Road. When the new pitch opened in 1983 it was named after one of the founding club members and former chair of the Derry County Board, John McLaughlin. In May 2007 the club began a £1.2million redevelopment of their playing facilities at John McLaughlin Park and opened the new grounds in May 2009.

Notable club members include Paul Bradley who won an All-Ireland minor medal with Derry in 1983, captained Derry minors to Ulster success in 1984 and who won a Sigerson medal with St Mary’s University College Belfast in 1989. Stephen Mulvenna won an All-Ireland senior medal with Derry in 1993. Club members Kevin Bryson, Tony Grey, Simon Greene, Joe Grey, Jordan Curran, Paddy O’Kane and Mark Creane have all represented the club at county level.