Off-field progress just as important as intriguing title race between league’s top three sides

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

Already this season, with a defeat to Derry City, Shamrock Rovers have shown that a previously impenetrable fortress – they won the league with games to spare for the past two seasons – has gaps that can be exploited.

And Shelbourne, the current WNL champions, are in no doubt that they’ll have a fight on their hands to retain a 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 outwit Shels in the FAI Cup final, and a chasing pack of clubs like DLR Waves and Galway will try to take points away, though it’s hard to see anyone from outside the big three of Shels, Peamount and Wexford being close to mounting a title challenge.

The league title and FAI Cup will be fought for, but success for the WNL will be defined by other factors this season.

Unlike the second tier in the men’s league, there’s an even number of teams in the WNL now, so no more of those annoying, and embarrassing, blank weekends for one club, so that’s progress.

Sponsorship tied in to SSE Airtricity’s deal for the men’s league will do no harm in terms of publicity, while the magic that TG4 have worked in other sports with their superb coverage of live games will give a boost to the WNL.

But the league can’t stand still. Crowds, and improving them, have to be targets for clubs individually and the league as a whole.

Bohemians have already stated their aim to establish a new attendance record for a league match in the women’s game here.

Having a set venue and kick-off time for their home games (Dalymount Park, Saturdays, 6.0) will assist in that, as it’s of no use to the Bohs players, or them as a club, to play at a windy, deserted Oscar Traynor complex as they did for most of last season.

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

Increased attendances should be seen as a necessity, not a bonus.

But the other issue facing the WNL is the retention of players.

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 talents like Ciara Grant, Naoisha McAloon, Emily Whelan and Jamie Finn.

Keeping veterans Kylie Murphy, Pearl Slattery, Áine O’Gorman, Karen Duggan and Stephanie Roche offers role models for younger players, and names for fans to latch on to, but with an inability to earn a living in the WNL, a British club can offer someone like Savannah McCarthy a professional career that’s denied to them here.

And it’s only a matter of time before current young stars like Ellen Molloy, Jess Ziu and Abbie Larkin move away, with no fee in return.

A move towards semi-professionalism will help but off-field progress is as important as any title race in 2022.

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