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'Every game is a fighting battle' - the Irish international hoping to avoid Bundesliga relegation

Claire O’Riordan talks to The42 about battling for survival with MSV Duisburg.

Updated Jun 13th 2020, 1:24 PM

IT WAS ABOUT an hour and 45 minutes before kick-off when the MSV Duisburg women’s team arrived for a crunch Bundesliga fixture last month, only to be told they couldn’t go into the grounds.

pjimage (13) Claire O'Riordan's current deal with Duisburg will keep her at the club until 2021.

Under normal circumstances, this was ideal timing to start preparing for a game. Enough time for players to peel out of the bus, stretch their legs and walk around the pitch to get a feel for the surface. 

But these are far from normal circumstances, and the Duisburg outfit would have to wait on the team bus before getting 30 minutes in the dressing-room ahead of kick-off. They were not allowed to walk out onto the pitch alongside the opposition or the match officials, and the ceremonial pre-match handshake was off-limits. 

Hand sanitizers and face masks are basically part of the matchday kit by now.

Picking up a 2-0 victory in the end was a nice way to complete their first league game in three months following a Covid-19 enforced absence. The result was all the more important, given they are in a tight relegation battle.

Duisburg are currently second-from bottom on the Frauen-Bundesliga, 11 points above USV Jena and level with Leverkusen heading into the final four games of the season.

FC Köln are one point further up on the table. The margins are slim on this final stretch to the end of the campaign.

Limerick native, and Republic of Ireland international, Claire O’Riordan knew a little bit about the club’s struggles when she made the move to Duisburg almost two years ago, but she has come to learn that her side are always in survival mode.

“When I first came to the league then, and we started getting ready for games, everyone was just talking about relegation and not getting relegated,” she tells The42.

On the day we speak, Duisburg have three games played under the new Covid-19 law. They subsequently lost 5-1 to FFC Frankfurt in an away tie last night where O’Riordan was sent off.

“That was such a shock to me,” O’Riordan continues about adjusting to life with Duisburg, “because I was after coming from a very successful time with Wexford Youths where we were always gunning to be the top team, and now we’re always fighting the battle of not being the last team.

“That did take my surprise. It’s something that I picked up from our former [Ireland] head coach Colin Bell.

Give yourself the best opportunity to win a game. Keep it to nil, don’t concede, and then you’re giving yourself the best chance to maybe nick a goal. The league is so high standard and you’re coming up against some unbelievable players.”

“At the moment, every game is a fighting battle. The next two games are going to be so difficult but they’re going to be so important because they’re going to determine whether we stay in or out of the league.”

Wolfsburg are the current leaders in the Frauen-Bundesliga, while Bayern Munich are eight points behind in second place. Both clubs have plenty of financial muscle backing them, an advantage which is difficult for clubs like Duisburg to match. 

“When teams are so big and have a real backing from their men’s teams, and they’re able to have all the staff and the players full-time, it makes a massive difference,” says O’Riordan.

Just for example, when the girls are coming from work or school, they’re tired. To be able to have to put down a full day’s work or study and then have to go to a training session. We do that as well in Ireland but it’s only two to three times a week.

“We’re on the pitch five or six times a week, and to be fresh for game day. It is quite difficult so I know why the club is where it is and why it’s a fighting battle just to stay in the league.”

claire-oriordan-with-susan-hackett O'Riordan was with Wexford Youths before she made the move to Duisburg in 2018. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

O’Riordan reckons there are about three full-time players, including her, in the Duisburg squad. There was a squad rebuild last season, with some 10 new players being signed. 

Newcastle West’s O’Riordan found herself at the heart of this regeneration process, playing in a central defender role for the first time.

“It kind of just gives you an insight into what we were actually really starting with,” she explains. “I was starting from absolute scratch with a new league team, position, and I was right in the thick of things.”

The majority of O’Riordan’s team-mates are either in school or are working, a difficult life to lead when trying to commit to a team in the Bundesliga.

Their weeks involve piling five to six training sessions on top of their work or education commitments.

There’s also matches to fit in as well, and the Bundesliga fixture schedule is chaotic at the moment on account of the Covid-19 shutdown. It’s a huge toll on players who aren’t fully professional.

One of O’Riordan’s team-mates is a police officer and was not permitted to play some of their games as she does not have sufficient time off between games to undergo Covid-19 tests.

“It’s so hard on her as a player and a person,” O’Riordan continues, taking up the story.

“It’s really brought her down because she can’t play the last few games when we’re in the situation that we’re in.

She’s a massive player for us and a consistent starter. But to be fair, she’s done that job for the couple of weeks leading up to the game. She’s conducted all her Covid tests and they’ve all returned negative.

“Even though you have that to back her up and what she would have wanted was to continue playing. The DFB [German Football Association] are very strict on that. Something that I can’t really understand.” 

samantha-mewis-with-claire-oriordan O'Riordan lining out for Ireland in a friendly against World Cup champions USA last year. Source: USA Today/Gary A. Vasquez/INPHO

On the international front of O’Riordan’s career, Ireland have three crunch Euro 2021 qualifiers, although the tournament has been rescheduled to 2022 due to the pandemic.

Ireland, who are currently on top of Group I, have three more qualifiers to fulfill — and possible play-offs to face — as they continue the hunt to qualify for a first-ever major tournament. 

They must face top seeds Germany at home and away, while an away clash with Ukraine also awaits the Girls in Green.

“We usually never go this long without seeing each other,” says O’Riordan, who adds that she will be speaking to Ireland boss Vera Pauw soon in a Zoom call along with Amber Barrett [FC Köln] and Diane Caldwell [SC Sand], two Irish stars who are also plying their club trade in Germany.

“Usually it would be five or six weeks so it’s been so long since we’ve been with the squad. Everyone is just itching to get back into camp.”

Navigating the choppy waters to hopefully help Duisburg avoid relegation is O’Riordan’s priority at the moment, however. With very little separating the teams at the bottom, she anticipates that their survival will go right down to the final game on 27 June against USV Jena.

“It’s a fight between ourselves, Leverkusen and Köln,” she says. “Anything can happen, Köln got a win against Essen which would have been probably a shock to the league because no-one would have really expected that to happen but that’s just football.

“We were able to secure a 2-2 draw against Bayern Munich before the international break, and again, another result that no-one would have thought possible. For me, it’s not going to be over until it’s actually over.”

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