“Ironically Kenny’s comments were him acting emotionally to the defeat,” says Aoife Downey.
The general manager of Irish Premiership side Warrenpoint Town noted a few months after her appointment in 2019 how her gender had become a talking point in a way she had not expected.
Within Northern Irish football, Downey is more familiar than most with having her role and gender connected with far greater frequency than her male counterparts – and yet the comments made by the Northern Ireland women’s manager still shocked her.
After his side’s 5-0 defeat by England, Shiels said: “Girls and women are more emotional than men. So they take a goal going in not very well.”
His remarks drew widespread criticism, including from former England players Siobhan Chamberlain and Ian Wright. Earlier on Wednesday, the NI boss apologised for the offence caused and said he was “an advocate for the women’s game and passionate about developing opportunities for women and girls to flourish”.
- Shiels apologises for saying ‘women are more emotional than men’
For Downey – who holds a Master’s degree in Sports Psychology from Ulster University – a manager is unable to wash their hands of any perceived psychological weaknesses within their team.
“It’s almost like he’s blaming the emotional side of his team for a defeat. Somewhere along the line, the manager has to take some kind of responsibility for that as well,” Downey says.
“It comes down to emotional intelligence, regardless of what your gender is. Your manager or coach should be looking at the psychological aspect of your game and encouraging you to go out and train the psychological side of your sport.
“There are different aspects to sport: physical, technical, tactical and psychological, and they should all be part of the training.”
The furore over the comments have overshadowed what was a momentous occasion for Northern Ireland’s senior women’s team, who in recent times have carried the mantle as the nation’s feel-good story having qualified for their first major tournament, this summer’s Women’s Euro 2022.
On Tuesday a record 15,348 fans were at Windsor Park as the home side’s World Cup qualifying hopes were dashed by an impressive England.
The numbers tell the story of how excitement surrounding the women’s game in Northern Ireland has reached new heights with the hope of more records to be broken in times to come.
The concern over Shiels’ comments, says Downey, is that they serve as a deterrent for younger girls whose interest in the game remains tentative.
“It definitely can be very off-putting,” she says.
“If I went back to when I was 13 or 14 I would just think ‘well there’s no point if that’s what I’m being labelled as’.
“Then also you’re almost hyper-aware of your emotions and it can have even more negative impact if you’re constant thinking that you can’t display your emotions.
“You might not even be reacting emotionally, but it will always be ‘oh yeah, you’re just being emotional’, it will just be written off as that.”
“It comes down to people’s perception of emotion. Aggression is an emotive outcome, so obviously if a male acts aggressively in sport that’s based on emotion but it’s never referred to as a male athlete being emotional.”
‘Apology welcome after inappropriate comments’ – Sport NI
With the Euros less than three months away it will be hoped that the palpable anticipation holds firm, and that the atmosphere created by Shiels’ comments is temporary.
What happens next largely depends on the conversations, which may even have already happened, Shiels has with his players.
“I have every confidence that Kenny Shiels will be having the right conversation with his Northern Ireland squad in the dressing room and on the training pitch in the coming days,” Sport NI chief executive Antoinette McKeown said on Wednesday.
“The views expressed last night were inappropriate, there’s no doubt about that. I think it’s really important that our sports leaders know that mindset does matter.
“It helps shape the attitudes of and behaviours of our young boys and girls, so we were heartened to see such a prompt apology from Kenny Shiels because he’s obviously reflected on his comments and understood the impact that they made.”
“Sporting culture is absolutely critical to an inclusive and equality environment. We all recognise that even when women are represented in the game they are often not respected.
“We want to see more under-represented groups thrive in sport and we want to see a mindset that can make that happen.”