Ayeisha McFerran has warmly welcomed Hockey Ireland’s new bursary scheme but she hopes that it is merely the start of a process that ultimately leads to a full-time professional set-up for the national women’s team.
The new initiative may also play a role in influencing the Ulster woman’s next move at club level as she considers her options, one of which might now be to stay in Ireland rather than move abroad.
Dublin real estate firm, Park Developments, has come up with a timely four-year financial package which will fund the bursaries for Ireland’s women as they bid for a place at an Olympic Games for the first time.
The first stage of the qualifying process takes place at Banbridge next month when Ireland require a top-two finish in the face of lower-ranked opposition to progress to the final eliminator.
The new sponsorship deal will facilitate an increase in contact hours, with 23 top players being compensated to allow them to go into training camps for three days a week and not be out of pocket. Until 2017, the international players had to pay an annual levy of £500 just to play for their country and, in addition, several took unpaid leave from their jobs to be able to give the commitment that was required.
Their dedication was rewarded when they surpassed all expectations to lift the silver medals at last year’s World Cup when McFerran was named goalkeeper-of-the tournament.
The 23-year-old Larne woman performed heroics in London last August, highlighted by virtuoso displays as Ireland defeated India and Spain in penalty shoot outs in the quarter and semi-finals respectively.
With the shift towards a semi-professional set-up, the Ireland players will be able to go some way towards matching some of the other top nations, many of whose players receive an annual salary, with those from England and Great Britain earning up to £30,000 per year. The Irish scheme is obviously much less lucrative, being primarily compensatory rather than profit-making, but is a welcome step in the right direction, according to McFerran.
She said: “It’s great that Park Developments have come on board and given this opportunity to train more together,”
“We welcome it with open arms but we definitely still need more support I feel if we are to make that big step to going to a fully professional level. From what I know there will be bursaries for the players that will be named that will help make it easier in terms of work commitments to train on a more full time basis for the programme.”
“It’s totally individualised and each player in the squad has very different circumstances so it will be a matter of sitting down with the Hockey Ireland Board and determining each players’ individual needs.”
McFerran has just finished a combining a degree course with a hockey scholarship at the University of Louisville and has yet to sign for a club. After her heroics at the World Cup, she wasn’t short of offers to play outside of Ireland but she revealed that staying at home is now a possibility, influenced by the bursary scheme which makes that option more attractive.
She added: “I’ve nothing settled at the minute and my main focus was just finishing up in America and now that has shifted to the first round of the Olympic qualifiers.”
‘My main priority is to get back to work with the girls and then I will worry about going abroad or staying here as I decide what is the best situation for myself and Irish Hockey.”
“I had previously been talking to a few teams but that kind of went quiet when I was concentrating on finishing up in America but maybe after the qualifiers I will see where I might end up in September.”
Anna O’Flanagan has played in Holland over the past couple of seasons and she, too, is undecided about her future at club level. But one thing she us sure about is that the new bursary scheme is a a very welcome development.
“It’s such a great announcement, it’s something that we’ve always wanted as players, to get that little bit of financial help, it’s definitely a starting point for us as a team,” said Anna, scorer of Ireland’s goals against India in the first phase and Spain in the quarter-finals in London.
“It means that I have some decisions to make as to whether I stay abroad or move back to Ireland. With that support we can definitely train more like full-time. You would probably work a couple of days and train a few days, you’d split your week because you wouldn’t be able to work five full days. You’d need an employer to co-operate certainly.”
“It’s more of a sustainable platform for us to go forward. It means that if you aspire to be on this team you’d know that this is your schedule, you’d know we train three days a-week as a group and you’d have the rest of the days to work or study.”
“That’s the kind of foundation we need to go forward. Before the World Cup a few of us stopped working completely and you can’t do that forever. It’s not sustainable for your career but also from a mental point of view. It’s good to have other things outside of hockey and this allows us to have a mixture of everything.”