Kenny Shiels’ talk of ‘emotional’ women is unacceptable. Football deserves better | Women’s football

It was said so matter-of-factly. “I thought we outwitted them for long periods until it was 2-0,” said Northern Ireland’s manager, Kenny Shiels, after his team’s 5-0 defeat by England in front of a sold-out record crowd of 15,348. “We knew exactly what they were going to do before they did it. We spoke about it. I felt they were struggling a wee bit at times to open us up until the psychology of going 2-0 up in the women’s game.

“I’m sure you will have noticed if you go through the patterns – when a team concedes a goal, they concede a second one in a very, very short space of time, right through the whole spectrum of the women’s game, because girls and women are more emotional than men. So, they take a goal going in not very well. When we went 1-0 down we tried to slow it down to give them time to get that emotional imbalance out of their heads. That’s an issue we have. Not just in Northern Ireland but all of the countries in the world. I shouldn’t have told you that.”

The “I shouldn’t have told you that” was not a check on himself, a realisation that he had said something inappropriate and inaccurate, but was said as if he had let the listening journalists in on a trade secret, a tactical nugget that other teams could exploit.

It was not a passing comment either, or a response to an awkward question. In a lengthy and relaxed press conference, where Shiels had spoken movingly of the importance of football to communities in Northern Ireland, which should have been the headline, he had been asked about the promising performances of a couple of players and, after he had sung individual praises, he moved on to the overall display and the above tumbled out.

Shiels has since apologised in a brief statement released by the Irish Football Association. “I wish to apologise for my comments made in the post-match press conference last night,” he said. “I am sorry for the offence that they have caused. Last night was a special occasion for the women’s game in Northern Ireland and I am proud to manage a group of players who are role models for so many girls, and boys, across the country. I am an advocate for the women’s game and passionate about developing opportunities for women and girls to flourish.”

Illustration: Guardian Design

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People make mistakes and, in the heat of the moment, can word things in a way they don’t truly mean but Shiels’ apology for offence caused, without any recognition of the inaccuracies or inappropriateness, is ultimately a non-apology.

Moreover, his original comment implied that this was far from an off-the-cuff theory but something he has thought about, and there are a number of big problems with that.

Northern Ireland’s goalkeeper Jacqueline Burns watches as England score their first goal in Belfast
Northern Ireland’s goalkeeper Jacqueline Burns watches as England score their first goal in Belfast. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/The FA/Getty Images

First, there is zero science behind his claims. More goals may well be scored in quick succession in the women’s game and his stats and analysis may well show that to be true. But to conclude that a psychological or emotional deficiency in women is the root cause of this speaks to deeper sexist views and perpetuates stereotypes. For too long women have faced criticism for being too emotional or sensitive or overdramatic, feeding a narrative that women are erratic and unruly whereas men are calm, collected and in charge.

There are many reasons why, if accurate, there may be more goals conceded in women’s football than men’s. For example, inexperience (the Northern Ireland players will be competing in their first major tournament this summer, for instance) or a fitness gap that can be exposed by far fewer players being full-time professionals (Northern Ireland’s part-time squad members are in a seven-month professional camp in the run-up to the European Championship finals). All of which makes jumping on some perceived weakness in women even more bizarre.

Regardless, inherent in Shiels’ comment is that there is something wrong with being emotional and that, in this scenario, men aren’t and women are and that this is a problem that needs fixing. It is a big concern when the person saying it is in charge of the progress and development of a senior women’s national football team. The message it sends to young boys and girls is not a good one.

The beauty of football is that it is packed with emotion. The ebbs and flows of a game are built from the emotions of the players and fans respond accordingly.

Kenny Shiels speaks after Tuesday’s match
Kenny Shiels speaks after Tuesday’s match. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

“Kenny Shiels talking foolishness! Talking about emotional women! Didn’t that man see how many times I was crying on the PITCH! Kmt,” tweeted Ian Wright in response to the comments.

The Derry-born Republic of Ireland international James McClean, a vocal critic of Shiels because of comments Shiels made during his time in charge of Derry, posted: “Gift that keeps on giving. Same guy when managing Derry said that international football has no pride anymore, that Ireland are England reserves and the North of Ireland are England reserves’ reserves and now manages the North of Ireland women’s international team.”

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Shiels has a history beyond those comments from 2016. The 65-year-old, manager of Northern Ireland’s women’s team since 2019, stepped away from post-match interview duties when manager of Greenock Morton in 2014 after speaking to a doctor and saying he had trouble keeping his emotions in check after matches. Controversial comments around refereeing decisions had played a part in his sacking by Kilmarnock the previous year.

It is incredibly disappointing that, should Shiels continue in post, the comments on Tuesday night will likely hang like a dark cloud around a team showing real promise and developmental growth. These types of remarks cannot go unchallenged or be overlooked, even though Shiels is, by all accounts, well liked by the players and has done a good job. Football deserves better.