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Versatile Ireland star 'needs to keep pushing on' - but misses must-win Georgia clash

Heather Payne had to return to Florida for college commitments after Thursday’s draw with Slovakia.

Ireland's Heather Payne facing Jana Vojtekova of Slovakia.
Ireland's Heather Payne facing Jana Vojtekova of Slovakia.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

SHE’S BEEN A key player for the Republic of Ireland through their World Cup qualifying campaign so far, but Heather Payne is unavailable for Tuesday’s clash against Georgia.

The versatile 21-year-old had to return to her US base of Florida State University after Thursday’s disappointing 1-1 draw with lower-ranked Slovakia.

“Unfortunately, I have college work,” Payne told the RTÉ TV cameras post-match. “I can’t get out of it this time. I’ve come back for every game, as much as I could. I did what I could to get back here for this game.

“We have a great squad, so I think we’ll be fine for Tuesday. I’ll be tuning in. I’m very disappointed I can’t play, but I have great faith in all my team-mates to go and get a win against Georgia.”

Payne, in her third year of studying dietetics, likely faced a lengthy three-flight commute back to Tallahassee, and surely spent some time reflecting on her 22nd cap en route.

While the Ballinasloe native was always an outlet up top against the Slovaks, chasing down every single ball, the service was often poor, resulting in a frustrating night overall.

She put in a seismic shift, as always, though couldn’t quite hit the heights of her sensational performance against Finland last month.

Dubbed “half horse, half human” by team-mates after that monumental Helsinki win, the stats certainly don’t lie, with Payne almost always top of Ireland’s GPS leaderboard.

While she made her senior international debut in 2017 after climbing the underage ranks, she’s really established herself as a regular under Vera Pauw.

Payne has started the last 10 games, mostly being deployed in a centre-forward role. An incredibly versatile player, she hadn’t really lined out there before. Most naturally a winger, she’s also played full-back and, interestingly, centre-half for her college team.

“We play her up front because of her pace and directness towards the goal,” as Pauw explained last week. “She, in the balance, is not a striker. She disrupts the defence with her pace and ability to break through.”

That she does, ever-growing into the position and making it her own.

Having lined out alongside Lucy Quinn against Slovakia, Payne reflected:

“I’m feeling more comfortable now centre-forward, getting more used to it and playing with Katie [McCabe] and Denise [O'Sullivan] and the rest of the girls in there. It’s between me and Lucy [Quinn] up front, we’re both on either side and happy if we end up switching. We just try and run down the channels.

“I just need to keep pushing on now, try to get a few goals and help the team in whatever way I can.”

Afterwards, Pauw said that Ireland’s forward link-up play is “a work in progress” and “can be better,” given the qualities in the team, urging patience and the need for more time.

heather-payne-applauds-the-fans-after-the-game Payne applauding the fans after the game. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Heather was outstanding again,” the boss added, agreeing that she should shoot more if the opportunity arises in front of goal. “We are working on that as well. Every training, we go towards the goal with overloads, and she is better already.”

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With just one senior international goal to her name, though plenty through the underage ranks, Payne feels that maybe she should take the ball on more rather than laying it off.

“I suppose, I don’t know, I just try and do what comes to me in the game. I can’t even remember, but yeah, I probably should take on a few more opportunities myself.”

Reflecting on Thursday’s game in a more general sense, she continued: “You’re going to be disappointed not getting three points. I think everyone needs to realise we still got a point out of a very scrappy game.

“Slovakia are a good team, a tough side, they put up a fight against Sweden and Finland, and we still have to play these teams again. You never know how the results are going to go at the other end. We’re going to take a point. We showed character and were unlucky not to get a second goal, so we can use that second-half performance and push on.”

To the visit of the group’s minnows tomorrow night. While her absence potentially opens the door for Kyra Carusa, or perhaps Amber Barrett, Payne concluded:

“I think against Georgia it’s a must-win anyways. We were still going to go into that game with the same mentality, regardless of the result [against Slovakia]. As I said, a draw is still a point so we’re going to take that.”

BTL 5

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Emma Duffy

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