With the start of the 2020 FAI Women’s National League campaign around the corner, Dave Bell and Shelbourne are looking to take it up a level this year.
The Dublin club, founded in 1995, joined the FAI WNL in 2015 when they merged with Raheny United. Their first, and currently only, league trophy came back in 2016 and in the last two years, they have finished second by the narrowest of margins (two points to Wexford Youths and Peamount respectively). Captained by Pearl Slattery, they have a young squad that includes many a player that has been capped for the Irish national team including Ciara Grant, Jessica Ziu and Jamie Finn.
Bell took over the reins before the start of the 2019 campaign. As the club look to push forward, both manager and players have that top spot very much in their sights: “I think the girls are very determined to go that one better this year. It was just a little bit tough I suppose in the end. We lost the one game in the league all season [against Peamount] and we lost the [FAI Women’s Cup] semi-final. If you look at it, they were more or less the same – they lost a semi-final [FAI WNL League Cup] to us and lost one league game to us – so it wasn’t that far away when you think about it. It was those couple of points we dropped in a couple of draws where we possibly should have won the games. It’s an important season for the girls; we have had some very young players in the team and hopefully they have matured a lot from last year.”
With the season originally meant to begin on the 14th March, the coronavirus pandemic put all preparations on hold. For managers, as well as players, adjustments had to be made and Bell had to figure out how to prepare without his players around him and the challenges that brought: “I didn’t really get on top of the girls in relation to their fitness or what they did. I allowed the physios and the assistants to do that…so it was just a case of checking up to see if everybody was ok. As a coach, it becomes quite lonely when you are at home and doing nothing. It was difficult at times because you are not getting yourself out every day and meeting people and coaching.”
With the green light given for the return to football back in June, pre-season is now very much underway, which the manager is relishing: “It’s great to be back to training. We had a couple of sessions where it was a small amount of people but after that we were allowed to bring the whole squad in and train from there. It’s getting going straightaway. No matter how fit they seem to be, the first touch and the movement and being football fit isn’t the same as just doing your press ups and sit ups and that type of thing. So getting on the field was the most important thing and each day they have got better and better.”
Facing a shortened time period, the format of the league has changed with two phases implemented. In the first phase, every team will play each other once before the table is split in half and the teams in each section will play each other again. While happy that the league is back, Bell himself isn’t entirely certain of the benefits this will bring: “I would have preferred if they had extended the league and gone with the home and away basis. I think sometimes it can be a little bit unfair and the thing I worry about the most is giving players game time. We have 22 players signed and getting game time is going to be quite difficult in such a short season.”
Behind the scenes, Shelbourne have been making moves to bring their women’s side up to a more equal playing field. Last year, they dropped “Ladies” from their name, moved to play their home games at the club’s Tolka Park, played in the same kit while season tickets covered both FAI WNL and League of Ireland – “They [Shelbourne] are trying to have the men and women equal, and the boys and girls equal. They have brought the academy under the club now, to make sure that’s equal to the boys. So, it’s equal opportunities…it’s just educating people and, as the seasons have gone by, things are getting better. It’s taking a bit of time and hopefully we’ll see the fruits of that again in two or three years’ time. Most men’s clubs in Ireland are looking to take on a women’s team – Bohemians have done that themselves; Athlone have done it as well. Hopefully, in time, we’ll see that every single men’s club has a women’s club and they can have a league like the men.”
Back on the pitch, Bell has a strong CV in the women’s game having managed the Republic of Ireland U17s previously, coaching the likes of Arsenal’s Katie McCabe and West Ham’s Leanne Kiernan. For him, being a people’s person is key to his coaching abilities: “I am very enthusiastic, and I like to look after my players like it’s a family. That’s really important to me…I like people. Whether it be the men or the women or a boy or a girl, if I walk down the street in ten years’ time and they shake my hand and then say to their partner, “Dave Bell was a good coach but more importantly he was a good man as well”, that would be more important to me. I like to make sure I am just as good as a person as I am as a coach because sometimes people falter in that.”
Shelbourne open their season at home to Cork City at 14:00 BST on Saturday 8th August 2020.
Photo credit: extratime.ie