Progress off the field is just as important as an intriguing title race between the top three teams in the league

Just like the men’s version of the League of Ireland that started last month, the Women’s National League (WNL) starts this weekend with a Dublin club as reigning champions and everyone else trying to catch up and wrestle the crown off their heads .

Already this season, Shamrock Rovers showed with a defeat by Derry City that a previously impregnable fortress – they’ve won the league by games to go for the last two seasons – has gaps that can be exploited.

And Shelbourne, the current WNL champion, is certain they will be fighting for the title won in dramatic circumstances on the final day of last season.

Peamount United will feel hurt by the very rare experience of a trophy-free season, Wexford Youths will be buoyed by their ability to outmaneuver Shels in the FAI Cup final and a chasing group of clubs like DLR Waves and Galway will be looking to pick up points away, although it’s hard to see anyone outside of the big three of Shels, Peamount and Wexford on the verge of putting up a title challenge.

The championship title and the FAI Cup are in contention, but other factors will determine the WNL’s success this season.

Unlike the men’s second division, the WNL now has an even number of teams, so no more annoying and embarrassing empty weekends for a club, so that’s a step forward.

The sponsorship that comes with SSE Airtricity’s deal for the men’s league will do no harm in terms of the public, while the magic that TG4 has worked with their superb coverage of live games in other sports is a boost for the WNL will.

But the league must not stand still. Attendance figures and how to improve them must be targets for individual clubs and for the league as a whole.

The Bohemians have already announced their goal of setting a new attendance record for a women’s league game here.

A set venue and kick-off time for their home games (Dalymount Park, Saturdays, 6.0) will help with that, as it’s of no use to the Bohs players, nor to them as a club, to play at a windy, deserted Oscar Traynor complex , as they did for most of last season.

Shels has worked hard to make Tolka Park a proper home for Noel King’s side, as has Galway WFC at Eamon Deacy Park. Sligo Rovers hope the city has an appetite for their new team.

Increased traffic should be seen as a necessity and not a bonus.

But the other problem the WNL faces is player retention.

Saoirse Noonan is back in the league (Shels) after a move to England was held up, but in the last year the WNL has lost immense talent like Ciara Grant, Naoisha McAloon, Emily Whelan and Jamie Finn.

Holding on to veterans Kylie Murphy, Pearl Slattery, Áine O’Gorman, Karen Duggan and Stephanie Roche provides role models for younger players and names for fans to cling to, but with an inability to make a living in the WNL, Can a British club offer someone like Savannah McCarthy a professional career that is denied to him here.

And it’s only a matter of time before current young stars like Ellen Molloy, Jess Ziu and Abbie Larkin move away without a fee.

A move toward semi-professionalism will help, but progress off the field is as important as any title race in 2022. Progress off the field is just as important as an intriguing title race between the top three teams in the league

Fry Electronics Team

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