On Saturday afternoon, DLR Waves travel to Galway to start their much-anticipated league campaign, their second after returning to the FAI WNL fold.

Based on the south side of Dublin, DLR Waves (Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown Waves) were founded in 2012 and joined the Women’s National League. Known as UCD Waves from 2014 to 2018, after a merger with University College Dublin, DLR then returned to the competition as UCD withdrew.

With things starting afresh, Graham Kelly was named manager at the start 2019 and his side proceeded to finish sixth. It was a first opportunity in the women’s game for the former Bray Wanderers’ coach, who has utilised his strengths as a man-manager to get the best out of his teams: “I like things to be done professionally and I have standards which the coaching staff, who are all brilliant, support me on. The club supports me, and the players now understand it as well… I think I am a good man-manager and the players can approach me. The learning curve I had last year, dealing with different players and different emotions and different problems that come up in the female game; it was all new to me. I learned from that really great experience and I hope I bring some of that in this season.

Behind the scenes, the club have also been building the structures and pathways towards success. They have partnerships with eight clubs – Mount Merrion, Shankill FC, Terenure Rangers, Enniskerry, Granada Lakelands, South Dublin League, and TEK United. When players from those clubs hit 16, the best then have the opportunity to come to DLR. The club fields an under 16s side in the local Metropolitan Girls League, an FAI WNL Under 17s side and then the seniors: “We give young players on the south side of Dublin an opportunity to play first team football in a very good coaching environment. I definitely think that’s what we are. Obviously, we’re looking to build on that in the next couple of years and that’s when we go and challenge the bigger clubs. But right now, it’s getting the players the platform to play in the league and get used to it.

There have been additions to the seniors during the off-season, but Kelly’s squad has remained largely settled and there are ambitions of moving up the table: “We’re hoping to improve on last season. We’re still a very young squad, probably one of the youngest in the league, but we’ve been together now. Obviously, last year was brand new – our first season and it was my first season as well. But 18 months later, we’re hoping we can be a bit more competitive and we would be sort of looking for that 4th or 5th place finish to improve on last season.

The coronavirus pandemic has made preparations for this season that bit more difficult without hands-on contact with his players for several months. However, Kelly and his staff didn’t rest on their laurels, putting in place schedules to keep them fit and planning for the return to football: “It’s actually been quite busy even though we haven’t been in. We have been constantly with coaches and staff on Zoom calls, planning our return to training, planning Zoom calls with the players, and then we have been doing individual programs for the players to do themselves as well. We’ve done two zoom calls a week with the players. We were giving them two individual sessions a week to do and they have GPS vests, so we were sort of tracking them through that. In fairness to the girls, they put in a lot of hard work. They came back in good shape and they are good to go.

With games about to come thick and fast, there is also a new league format to adapt to. 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. But while it will pose different challenges, with games becoming more like cup fixtures, the DLR manager is just happy to have football back: “When you take everything into consideration with COVID, there is obviously a lot more important things than football. So to get any type of season this year is just a bonus. It’s probably just rotating the squad a little bit because it’s only a short amount of games, so you want everyone playing at some stage. I don’t think anyone expects us to win the league; we want to be competitive, but we also want to make sure players develop and that means playing games.

Kelly is also excited by the growth in the women’s game in Ireland, with increased promotion of the FAI WNL, the progress of the women’s national team and campaigns such as 20×20: “In fairness to the FAI, they are promoting it a bit more this year. If I was going to be critical, I would say last year was my first year in women’s football and it was never promoted. This year there is a lot more promotion around the teams and I just encourage anyone that’s out there, if you get the chance, to come to a game…there are top, top players in this league and there are international players in this league, so if you get a chance to watch an international player you would be mad not to. I think the Irish women’s team are in great form and again they are flying. They are on the verge of hopefully qualifying for the Euros in England which would give the country a massive, massive boost. A lot of people have been talking about the late Jack Charlton and what he did for men’s football in qualifying for the tournaments. The word legend is used and that’s exactly what Jack Charlton is, he’s an absolute legend in Irish football. I think Vera Pauw and Eileen Gleeson are very close to getting that women’s team the equivalent of qualifying for their first championships and that could change women’s football in this country.

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