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'We've made a massive leap forward. The progress has been tremendous'

Now two years in the job, Ireland women’s manager Colin Bell believes his side have come a long way.

Ireland women's boss Colin Bell.
Ireland women's boss Colin Bell.
Image: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

IT IS TWO years since Colin Bell was appointed the Republic of Ireland women’s team head coach, and he believes major strides have been made during that time.

The Englishman was given a remit to develop the game at international level by bringing through young talented players as U17 boss and developing them for his senior side

Ultimately, his aim is to become the first women’s manager to qualify Ireland for a major international tournament at senior level.

Bell was only two months in the job when the entire senior squad went on strike over the FAI’s working conditions, but once an agreement was reached, he got to work on introducing a level of professionalism that hadn’t been achieved under previous regimes.

A first crack at reaching this year’s World Cup fell short after they finished third in an extremely difficult group featuring European champions Norway and an abundantly-talented Dutch outfit.

But there were plenty of encouraging signs on show, such as the number of promising teenagers used and the large crowds turning out to watch the Girls in Green. 4,047 attended Tallaght Stadium for the Netherlands game in April, just four days after 3,521 had shown up to the same venue to witness the win over Slovakia.

With no competitive fixtures until they kick off their Uefa 2021 European Championships qualifying campaign on 3 September, Bell has scheduled a number of training camps and friendlies against quality opposition to ensure their progress continues. 

We’ve made a massive leap forward,” Bell said yesterday at the launch of the Sports Direct Summer Soccer Schools.

“I think that the last two camps that we’ve had and even the campaign was good. It could’ve been a very good campaign, of course, if we had beaten Norway, but the way that we are setting up now — the pace of the game, the ability on the ball and the fitness levels are totally different from two years ago.

“We still have a lot of work to do. We’ve made some good moves forward and we’ve seen that in the games that we’ve played in this calendar year. We’ve picked out some really strong nations — Belgium, Italy, Wales — although now we’re above Wales in the rankings but they’re second seeds in the Euros.

“We needed that, to have the danger of losing matches, but we wanted to set our stall out against these nations. We had chances to win all of the games, so we’re able to compete now.

“We just have to get over that hurdle which will be actually getting the results that we need. But the progress has been tremendous.”

Chelsea Women v West Ham United Women - FA Women's Super League - Kingsmeadow West Ham's Irish striker Leanne Kiernan. Source: EMPICS Sport

Two of Ireland’s stand-out players during Bell’s time in charge have been Leanne Kiernan and Katie McCabe.

Cavan native Kiernan made the switch to West Ham from Shelbourne last year, and the 19-year-old, who was named FAI Women’s Player of the Year in March, has taken to life in England extremely well — helping the Hammers to reach next weekend’s FA Women’s Cup final.

McCabe, meanwhile, was named Ireland captain by Bell at the age of 21. The Dubliner initially found it difficult to break into an excellent Arsenal team after joining from Shels in 2015.

However, after a loan spell at Glasgow City, the winger has become a key player since head coach Pedro Martinez Losa was replaced by Australian Joe Montemurro.

This term, she has played more times than any other Arsenal player — scoring nine goals along the way — as they close in on the FA Women’s Super League title. Compatriot Louise Quinn has also been immense at the back for the North Londoners. 

“If we just take two examples,” said Bell, who is glad to have both in such fine form. “The example of Leanne making that big move to England where she’s really developed. She was on a good way anyway just before she left, but now is in that environment every single day.

“Playing with good players in training, having a good coach with in Matt Beard and playing against top players every week — that’s really helped her.

“Then you see the difference of Katie McCabe. Katie had to go the hard way — not being in the team [at Arsenal], on the bench and coming into the international set-up with not really being able to show her true ability because a lack of match practice.

“I remember when we came in for the double header against Slovakia and the Netherlands last year, Katie — from the camp that we had in Cork in the February/March window — had played five minutes in that time.

So in the space of four weeks, she had five minutes on the pitch playing competitive football. So how on earth is she able to then perform against Slovakia and Netherlands?!

“This season it’s been totally different because [Arsenal manager] Joe [Montemurro] has really supported her. She’s had a fantastic season and you can just see the difference.

“That again is a tremendous example of the mental strength that Katie had to show to deal with that situation and she’s coming through really well and that’s pleasing.”

Arsenal v Reading - Women's Super League - Meadow Park McCabe has enjoyed a superb season at Arsenal. Source: EMPICS Sport

On Saturday, 4 May, Kiernan’s West Ham meet face Manchester City in the FA Women’s Cup final at Wembley. 

Lifting the trophy would cap an incredible debut season for the teenager, who could be up against international team-mate Megan Campbell on the day. 

West Ham were not permitted to change the kick-off time of their final Premier League fixture at home to Southampton so that fans could support both the men’s and women’s sides on the day, but an attendance similar to the 45,423 recorded last year is still expected. 

“That’s unfortunate of course, I wasn’t aware of this situation,” replied Bell, when asked about the matter.

“I think there’s going to be a massive crowd anyway. Last year I was at the cup final and there was 45,000 at Wembley — and obviously I’m going to be there this time because we have two players again involved.

“I think they’ll probably be looking for that 45,000 mark again.”

- With reporting from Gavin Cooney

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