Impetus editor Ben Gilby spoke to Sion Swifts’ manager Tony McGinley who tells the fascinating story of a women’s team based in Strabane who are becoming one of the top women’s sides in Northern Ireland.
Whilst Linfield may have won the last four Northern Ireland Women’s Premiership titles, there is a side eighty-odd miles away who may not have the same name recognition, but are becoming a major challenger to the Blues position as the top side in the nation.
Tony McGinlay, the manager of Sion Swifts tells us all about the club’s development: “The Journey Sion Swift’s Ladies and Girls has been on is an exciting one. In 2010 we created a senior team and started from the bottom to create the first girl’s team in the local area. In 2014 we re-established our youth section of the club and that’s when it all started to pick up as our ladies team were playing top flight football and it was time to focus on the youth. We were slowly getting more and more girls into the sport and going from one youth team to two youth teams and so on. It was difficult as there are not any girls’ leagues in this area so we started playing in boys leagues until we decided a few years ago to travel to Belfast (over eighty miles away) to play in the South Belfast Youth League. We now are able to offer girls from six years old to senior ladies the chance to play the sport they love in a fun environment. We have recently formed a new committee, brought in more youth coaches and are doing everything we can to get girls football.”
For McGinley, the development of the game in Northern Ireland is incredibly exciting: “Since the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) have taken over the women’s game, it has really taken women’s football to the next level and it is now starting to get more recognition. People are starting to realise the talent in this women’s league is outstanding and it goes to show as players have left from our league to play for professional clubs. However, we need to get more clubs at the same level. If we can get the Premiership from six teams to ten teams but have every game competitive and more of a contest then I think each team will grow stronger and then when it comes to things like the Champions League more clubs from Northern Ireland will be ready for it.”
Sion Swifts have had to overcome particular major challenges in order to reach their present status, and McGinlay reiterates the particular issue of youth football in the Strabane area: “There really aren’t many girls teams around here, so we would just play a friendly here and there to give our girls a chance to play against girls. Our youths play in the South Belfast Boys Youth League. It’s very competitive so our girls just need to keep their heads up and battle on. I would be hopeful in a few years’ time there would be an all girl’s league in this area that’s competitive across all age groups and different levels of abilities so we can take girls football in this area to the next level.”
I asked Tony if the fact that Sion Swifts are not connected to a men’s Northern Ireland Premiership side is another added challenge. For him, “it doesn’t really worry us as we just put all our focus on our Ladies and Girls and do what’s best for them and the club and if we had a men’s team in the Premiership then we would just do the same thing we are doing now as its working. Having said that, it would give us a bigger profile to have a Premiership men’s side as a parent club.”
The World Cup was a factor in developing the recognition of the work that Sion Swifts are doing for girl’s and women’s football in the Strabane area: “It gave us a better image definitely through social media as there was fantastic coverage and it boosted our club’s image. We now would have just over a hundred girls from the girls/women’s side and it’s incredible to have such numbers and we hope to continue to grow.”
Our conversation concluded by looking to the future for both Sion Swifts and the wider women’s game in Northern Ireland. For McGinlay, “At Sion Swifts, we will just continue to try and improve our game and the women’s game by taking our players to the next level, filter the youth into the senior squad and slowly transform them into young ladies and most of all have fun whilst doing it. Things are getting better at the minute. It’s a shame there are only six teams good enough for the Premiership this year but I would like to think in five years’ time the competition will get stronger and we can make the Premiership bigger. We hope to be playing Champions League football within the next five years as it would be such an achievement for our wee town!”
Sion Swifts qualifying for the UEFA Women’s Champions League is very much an achievable aim. Keep an eye on this club, it’s a remarkable story and one which is only going to get better.