Rachel Graham: 'Everybody is out to beat Shels so we can't afford any slip-ups'Sat, Mar 18 2017
Rachel Graham hopes the buzz surrounding the Women's National League launch translates to the field as the treble champions prepare to kick off their title defence on Saturday evening.
The senior national team finished fourth at the invitational Cyprus Cup, losing out to North Korea in a closely-contested play-off, as Colin Bell's reign kicked off on a high.
The champions provided three of the players to that squad and, though a majority came from the English Premier League and bigger leagues abroad, a total of eight home-based players travelled.
And the excitement generated from the national team's success, added to continued achievement at underage level, has seemingly benefited the Women's National League.
Last week's league launch, ahead of the first season where the Women's National League will run on a calendar year alongside the men's game, attracted unprecedented attention.
“This is the third interview I've done for the game on Saturday and [in the past] I could go a whole season without doing an interview,” Graham told Extratime.ie ahead of the opening day.
“There definitely is more of an interest in it so I think maybe people are realising the quality that's in it and realising it's not as bad as they thought.
“Hopefully with the bit of publicity we might get a few more people at the games and a bit more support, and people will see we actually can play football.”
Shelbourne, and their previous incarnation Raheny United, have dominated the Women's National League since its inception in 2011, winning three of six titles to date.
They went one step further in 2016 – when the league ran one full campaign and a truncated one to manage the transition to summer football – winning a league, FAI Cup and League Cup treble.
With increased performance has come increased interest in their star players, however, and Shels lost star striker Noelle Murray to Glasgow City and Rebecca Creagh to semi-pro ball in Australia.
In their place have come Republic of Ireland internationals Roma McLaughlin, a 'direct replacement' for Murray, from Peamount United and Niamh Prior from UCD Waves.
Ireland midfielder Tiegan Ruddy has also arrived from Peamount as the champions look to replace international quality with more international quality
“I don't think many squads would cope with the loss of the likes of Noelle and Rebecca, and we've lost Gloria [Douglas] as well, so they're three big players.
“I think it just shows the depth we have in our squad that the team hasn't been weakened as much.
“We signed Roma, say who might be a direct replacement for Noelle, and we've signed Tiegan [Ruddy] who's slotted in really well, and Niamh Prior as well.
“So we have attracted these players, but even the players within the squad are ready and are stepping up. I think it shows the quality we have that we can cope with the loss of these players.”
Shels open their league defence at home to Cork City at Morton Stadium and, and the Leesiders have made a significant coup in pre-season with the signing of Ireland international Clare Shine from Glasgow.
The Red Pandas beat City home and away last season, winning 3-0 away and 4-1 at home, but Graham thinks the scorelines last season overstated the distance between the sides.
“I know we beat them 4-1 at home but it was 1-1 for a while and it wasn't an easy game. And I think they're only getting stronger.
“First day of the season, anything can happen, and I think everybody is out to beat Shels so we need to be on our game every week and we can't afford any slip-ups.”
Measured expectations aside, Graham knows the expectation on Shelbourne this season, like every season, will be to compete on every front.
Having completed a clean sweep of the domestic competitions last season, the Reds won't be given any credit for finishing second best regardless of the strength of the competition.
Not that the squad are feeling the pressure heading into the new season, as they take confidence from the perception that they're the team to beat.
“I think everybody is expecting us again to do the clean sweep, and to be honest I'd be disappointed myself if we didn't do it with the players we have, but I don't think we really feel the pressure of it.
“Everyone's going to be up for playing against us so we need to be on our game, and there are players in squads who can get a goal out of nothing that we need to be aware.
“I think we do have the strongest squad in the league, so as long as we get our system right and our tactics right, hopefully we can take care of results with that.
“Not to be cocky or anything, but I think the expectation of the club and this team that we're going to win everything.
“I wouldn't say comfortably, but we're probably favourites to win every game going into it.”
Shelbourne kick off their league campaign against Cork City on Saturday, March 18th at 7pm.