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'We've shown that we can compete, now it's a question of going the whole distance'

Ireland’s focus is on Slovakia first as they prepare for two massive World Cup qualifiers in Tallaght.

“LET’S GO FOR it,” Colin Bell grinned as the Ireland Women’s National Team (WNT) squad announcement press conference drew to a close on Thursday.

Colin Bell Colin Bell addressing last week's press conference. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The sheer magnitude of the coming days must not be underestimated as the quest to qualify for a first-ever major tournament continues. Unbeaten after three games in the 2019 World Cup qualifiers, the upcoming 180 minutes of football at Tallaght Stadium could be the biggest for women’s football in Ireland, ever.

That question is put to the manager in the press conference. Are they? “I hope so,” is his immediate response. “It’d be great. I think we’ve got ourselves into a position where we can claim that and state that.”

Bell won’t get too carried away just yet, and he certainly won’t allow his players to either. Qualification is still a tall order. With Slovakia coming to town on Friday, the focus is on that. The Netherlands are opposition four days later, and will come seeking revenge after Ireland held the European champions to a stalemate on a memorable November night in Nijmegen.

“It’s the next game, that’s the most important,” he stresses.

“We can’t change that, we can’t look into the future. I have to deal with the first game which is Slovakia and we try and build off that. If we get through that, then we obviously have to focus on the Dutch. Slovakia are very close to us in the way they play. We just have to focus on that.

“We’ve worked very, very hard to get in a position where we can really compete and have a realistic chance of qualifying. Nevertheless we can’t forget who we’re actually playing against in this group. It’s a really, really tough group for us. This is the challenge.”

And two of his strikers, Leanne Kiernan and Amber Barrett, both echo his words on where their main concentration lies.

Leanne Kiernan with Marta Unzue Leanne Kiernan. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Our first focus is Slovakia,” Kiernan says, plain and simple. “If you don’t get a good result against Slovakia, then Holland’s not as important. We need to get a good result.”

And Donegal native Barrett tells The42: “I think we’d be silly to look past that (Slovakia).

“Obviously there’s a lot of public attention with the Netherlands – the European champions coming to Tallaght is a massive, massive occasion for us.

“If we look past Slovakia, I think they would do damage on us so everybody’s solely focused on the Slovakia game. We can’t wait to get going.”

From the outside looking in, there’s a real sense of belief within the squad. Bell has instilled this mentality that Ireland are capable of beating anyone, and each and every player will testify that.

“I like to have that confidence in the way they play if possible,” he explains. “The way players perform. At times, a little bit of arrogance but not complacency.

“We are moving forward but we’ve still got a long way ahead, a tough journey to go down. The confidence levels have risen. The girls have realised also that if we have to achieve various aspects of our game, they have to be right. They have to be almost perfect for us to have a chance of winning.

“We’ve shown that we can compete, now it’s a question of the situation and the position we’re now in, to go the whole distance.”

This double-header, if you like, brings a new dimension in the fact that it’s two intense games in four days and recovery and the likes must be taken into account too.

He adds: “It will be a new experience playing at home.

Ireland players listen to Colin Bell Bell speaking to his players. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I just hope that that will boost the confidence. What I don’t want is that they think we have to do something totally special now because we’re playing in Ireland and everybody’s watching us.

“I don’t want that unnecessary pressure which could be a negative. You should be proud to be able to play here and give the public something back.”

Transform that pressure into positive energy, use the excitement in their favour.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity, it’s really exciting times” he smiles. ”We live in the here and now, let’s go for it. We’ll definitely do our best.”

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Ireland without Player of the Year for crucial World Cup qualifiers in Tallaght

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Emma Duffy

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