IIt was said so plainly. “I thought we outsmarted them for a long time to make it 2-0,” said Northern Ireland manager Kenny Shiels after his team’s 5-0 defeat by England in front of a record crowd of 15,348 sold out. “We knew exactly what they were going to do before they did it. We talked about it. I felt that sometimes they had a bit of trouble opening us up until the psychology of the 2-0 lead in the women’s game was enough.
“I’m sure you’ve noticed if you’ve gone through the patterns – if a team concedes a goal, they concede a second in a very, very short time, across the spectrum of women’s football because girls and women are more emotional than Men. So you take a gate that doesn’t go in very well. When we went down 1-0, we tried to slow it down to give them time to get that emotional imbalance out of their heads. That’s a problem we have. Not just in Northern Ireland, but in every country in the world. I shouldn’t have told you that.”
The “I shouldn’t have told you that” wasn’t a check on himself, a realization that he’d said something inappropriate and inaccurate, but was said as if he’d privyed the listening journalists to a trade secret, a tactical nugget other teams might know take advantage of that.
Nor was it a cursory comment or an answer to an awkward question. In a long and relaxed press conference in which Shiels had spoken movingly about the importance of football to communities in Northern Ireland, which should have been the headline, he had been asked about the promising performances of some players and, after singing individual praise, left he went to the overall display and the above fell out.
Shiels has since apologized in a brief statement from the Football Association of Ireland. “I would like to apologize for my comments at last night’s post-game press conference,” he said. “I’m sorry for the offense you caused. Last night was a special occasion for women’s football in Northern Ireland and I’m proud to be leading a group of players who are role models for so many girls and boys across the country. I am an advocate for women’s football and passionate about developing opportunities for women and girls to thrive.”
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People make mistakes and, in the heat of the moment, may phrase things in ways they don’t really mean, but Shiels’ apology for the offense caused without acknowledging the inaccuracies or inappropriateness is ultimately a non-apology.
Furthermore, his original comment implied that this was far from an off-the-cuff theory, but something he’s been thinking about, and there are a number of big problems with that.
First, there is zero science behind his claims. More goals may be coming in quick succession in the women’s game and his stats and analysis could well bear that out. but The conclusion that a psychological or emotional deficiency in women is the main cause speaks to deeper sexist views and perpetuates stereotypes. For too long women have been criticized for being overly emotional, sensitive or overly dramatic, feeding the narrative that women are unpredictable and unruly while men are calm, collected and responsible.
There are many reasons why women’s football concedes more goals than men’s football. Such as inexperience (Northern Ireland’s players will play their first major tournament this summer, for example) or a fitness gap that can be uncovered by far fewer players who are full-time professionals (Northern Ireland’s part-time squad members are included). a seven-month professional camp in the run-up to the European Championship finals). All of which makes jumping on a perceived weakness in women even more bizarre.
Regardless, inherent in Shiel’s comment is that there is something wrong with being emotional and that in this scenario men are not and women are and that is an issue that needs to be addressed. It is of great concern when the person saying this is responsible for the progress and development of a senior women’s national soccer team. The message it sends to boys and girls is not a good one.
The beauty of football is that it is full of emotions. The ups and downs of a game are built on the emotions of the players and the fans react accordingly.
“Kenny Shiels is talking nonsense! Speaking of emotional women! Didn’t that man see how many times I cried on the PITCH! Kmt,” Ian Wright tweeted in response to the comments.
Derry-born Republic of Ireland international James McClean, a vocal critic of Shiels due to comments Shiels made during his time in charge of Derry, wrote: “A gift always given. The same guy when he was managing Derry said that international football is no longer proud that Ireland are England’s reserves and Northern Ireland are England’s reserves and now manages the Northern Ireland women’s international team.
Shiels has a story that goes beyond these 2016 comments. The 65-year-old, who has been manager of the Northern Ireland women’s team since 2019, stepped down from post-match interview duties as manager of Greenock Morton in 2014 after speaking to a doctor and admitting she had problems controlling his emotions after games. Controversial comments about refereeing decisions had contributed to his sacking by Kilmarnock the previous year.
It’s incredibly disappointing that should Shiels continue to post, Tuesday night’s comments are likely to hang like a dark cloud around a team showing real potential and developmental growth. These kinds of comments cannot go unchallenged or overlooked, although by all accounts Shiels is very popular with players and has done a good job. Football deserves better.