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Shiels’ spiel highlights the struggles across all of society

The Northern Ireland boss is under fire for outdated post-match comments 

Northern Ireland Women Training Session Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

It was a bittersweet night for the ‘Green and White Army’ in Belfast, Ireland on Tuesday. They had just set a new record attendance [15,348] at Windsor Park but the team [ranked #46 in the world] had also just been soundly beaten by an improving England side, dashing any hopes of qualifying for the next World Cup. Yet, with the fans having poured out of the gates and the players having wrapped up their warm down, Northern Ireland manager, Kenny Shiels was about to make sure no one would be talking about the game come the morning.

A history of controversial comments

The 65-year-old, who had presided over the biggest upturn in Northern Ireland’s fortunes on the international stage, spoke a little about the game before he, completely unprompted, fell back on an old sexist trope. Shiels’ spiel fast went viral, his words about women being more emotional than men fast drawing ire from pundits and fans alike.

For those outside of Scottish or Northern Irish men’s football, Shiels going off on such a foot-in-mouth or bizarre tangent would have been jarring, but for those who remember his time at Kilmarnock or Derry City, well, it was just Kenny being Kenny. The manager had come under fire for a range of different comments and suggestions whilst managing in the men’s game. From branding Celtic as the “monsters of Scottish football” claiming that the Bhoys get preferential treatment from the SFA disciplinary panel – comments that earned him a ban – to branding Ireland MNT as “England reserves”.

Throughout his spells in men’s football, it’s clear that whilst Shiels has had periods of success, he’s also been his own biggest detractor, burning bridges and getting into spats wherever he’s gone.

Frustrations and emotions boil over

So, maybe it wasn’t such a surprise that on such an emotional and frustrating night in Belfast, Shiels offered up such an unnecessary opinion.

Of course, it’s easy enough to note Shiels’ age, and brush off his comments as ones that are typical of someone of his generation. Afterall, how often have we all balked at an offhand comment from a parent or grandparent that speaks to the different time they grew up in? But Shiels isn’t just a grandparent who you have to apologise for, he’s the manager of a women’s team, a national women’s team at that.

This isn’t just another case of Kenny being Kenny and saying something ill-advised, but raises real concerns about where his words are coming from. This is a man who has sat in the dugout at plenty of men’s game when his team has been sucker-punched by a quick second goal. This is a man who surely knows that any team, regardless of gender, are more likely to concede in the minutes immediately following a goal, yet he opted to fall back on the idea that women are simply more emotional.

Toxicity is becoming the norm

This in itself raises two very serious problems. We know, not just in football or sport, but society as a whole, boys are encouraged to cut themselves off from their emotions, to “man up” and not allow themselves to be vulnerable. Shiels’ words are unironically damaging for men – who account for [approx.] 75% of all suicides – who are often forced to suffer in silence because of the stigma society puts on emotion and sensitivity.

Secondly, and simply, his words belittle women. Commenting that it, “happens right through the spectrum of the women’s game,” suggests that women are at a genetic default and are, of course, inferior to men in football/sport in this regard. By simply being emotional – a deeply loaded word in this context – women are less resilient, less cut out to be footballers. By having emotions, that run wild, not least after conceding, women are prone to distraction or flights of fancy.

FBL-WC-2023-WOMEN-NIR-ENG-QUALIFIER Photo by PAUL FAITH/AFP via Getty Images

Many have come to Shiels’ defence, arguing that he simply made a meal of his words or that what he said didn’t come from a bad place per se. Yet his words carry weight, and whilst they could have been an off the cuff remark, an old cliché that came out of his mouth before his brain engaged, there is a very real chance they were said in earnest. By starting his statement with, “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this,” Shiels took immediate ownership of the words that tumbled from his mouth straight to the ears of British journalists.

Maybe he knew he was in the process of making room in his gob to fit a foot or two, or maybe he thought he was divulging some earth-shattering tactical insight, either way, the words that followed have been ringing around the football world ever since. And the worry is very much that he legitimately thinks women are not just more emotional than men, but that emotionality makes them lesser footballers than their male counterparts.

Apologies are now nothing more than fluff pieces

Shiels has since apologised, specifically for the offence his comments caused. No mention of recanting them or considering why he felt the need to express the sentiment or even if he was going to challenge himself over it, just, just an apology for the offence his words caused.

Maybe it’s just being a grizzled woso writer but his whole statement struck a hollow chord for me, it read as a simple five-minute PR job; a statement to placate the angry mob – who were undoubtedly, emotional.

Women in football, in sport, in society, are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Ambition and ruthlessness shown by men is applauded but when women display the same qualities, they are labelled as bitches, or ball-busters. They are forced to walk a tightrope of contradictions, soft and non-threatening but not delicate enough to be over-emotional, until they need to be damsels as not to emasculate their male counterparts.

Despite the rain in Northern Ireland on Tuesday night, Shiels might not have been expecting the storm that greeted him on Wednesday morning and maybe he is just the unlucky poster-boy. Maybe our society will never fully evolve away from a misogynistic one, maybe our woke selves will continue to butt against so-called dinosaurs, trapped in the endless back and forth. But maybe, just maybe, we might one day move away from the tired gendered ideas around emotionality, and the stigma of sensitivity will fade, benefiting men and women [and non-binary folk] alike.