The Irish Football Association's (IFA) ongoing commitment to women's football continues to pay off – with the promise of more progress to come.
The introduction of the First Kicks Soccer Academies three years ago has been particularly fruitful in terms of developing the grassroots game in the province. With more than 500 girls aged between six and 11 regularly taking part in the scheme, the IFA, according to women's football assistant Jackie Blyth, is on the right track.
"The grassroots programme is well on its way, so it's just getting more participants and raising the standard of the football," she told UEFA.com. "I know internationally we are getting hard draws but we're still holding our own. The work we're putting in now will pay off but in terms of grassroots it's about getting them early and making sure they've got the game and the technique."
The fact there are now 1,400 women playing competitive football in leagues in Northern Ireland, and more than 1,800 girls playing the game, shows just how rapid the growth has been. "Before 2002 there was nothing for girls in Northern Ireland," added Blyth. "Since then we have made absolutely massive steps – it's growing year on year. The only way is up.
"We need more people involved – volunteers are the key. Some people need to take their blinkers off and realise girls are playing football now, it's not just a boys' sport. Girls are getting faster and more technical and they're starting at an earlier age. The work that I've done, I can see the improvement. Imagine in 15 years – it's going to be massive."
From grassroots to the elite, then, the IFA is demonstrating its determination not to rest on its laurels. "We go away to the other countries for study groups and see best practice. We come back with ideas, we try to involve the clubs to see the different standards. There's a lot of time, effort and love that goes into the girls' game."
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