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Morgan Treacy/INPHO Ireland welcome Slovakia and The Netherlands over the coming days.
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'You're not supporting the women, you're supporting Ireland'
Colin Bell’s WNT ‘want to upset’ in their back-to-back crucial World Cup qualifiers at Tallaght Stadium.

IT’S EXACTLY ONE year to the day since the Ireland Women’s National Team (WNT) voiced their anger and took a grave stance against the FAI at Liberty Hall.

The dispute was well-publicised and widely reported nationally and around the world as they threatened to boycott an upcoming international friendly against Slovakia if their demands were not met. An agreement was reached though, and things have gone from strength to strength since then.

12 months on, they’re firmly in the spotlight again but for all of the right reasons. On Friday, they welcome Slovakia once again to Tallaght Stadium but this time, there’s much more at stake. It’s the first of two back-to-back crucial 2019 World Cup qualifiers, the second coming against European champions The Netherlands on Tuesday.

After two wins and a draw in their opening three qualifiers, Colin Bell’s side’s quest to reach their first-ever major tournament is approaching a critical phase.

“This is of course a very important phase coming up now,” the manager said yesterdsay at the announcement of Aviva’s sponsorship of the WNT until 2021.

“All the games have been very important for us, to be able to get into this position. It’s going to be an exciting challenge, an exciting two matches against a team that are very close to us, Slovakia, and the team that are European champions, and theoretically light years ahead of us. That’s a massive challenge.

“I have to keep reiterating that we are total outsiders in this group, we have Norway and Holland. Norway, they’re ex-European champions, Holland are current European champions. Both teams have world-class players.

“We can enjoy that role but have this expectation that we want to upset and want to give as good an account of ourselves as possible.”

Home support is of huge importance, according to Bell. His players have earned it from their first three fixtures, he says, and it’s up to them to show the Ireland supporters that they mean business on home turf as well as away. They want to give something back.

Last November, they earned a massive result against The Netherlands at the sold-out 12,000-capacity De Goffert Stadion in Nijmegen. To relay that, 12,000 fans. As opposed to the 1,037 that turned out at Tallaght last April for that Slovakia friendly. That said, it was a 2pm kick-off on a Monday.

Karen Duggan with Jackie Groenen 28/11/2017 Orange Pictures / Rob Koppers/INPHO Karen Duggan in action against The Netherlands. Orange Pictures / Rob Koppers/INPHO / Rob Koppers/INPHO

“You could see it in them, just that support,” midfielder Karen Duggan tells The42 as she casts her mind back to that memorable November night.

“There’s a real buzz around The Netherlands being European champions and stuff. We want to give our fans something to shout about and hopefully raise the profile of the game.

“We know that every supporter that comes out, they leave with no voice. We really, really appreciate that and we know that they’re going to get behind us on Friday and it’s going to give us the boost that we need to hopefully bring home the three points.”

“Playing in front of 12,000 Holland supporters, we did well to get a draw,” teenage sensation Leanne Kiernan added.

“Hopefully we can bring it into Tallaght and get a good result with all our family and friends behind us. I’m actually trying to get a club from Cavan up, some of the girls, they can come out and watch and hopefully they’ll be there someday too.”

And Donegal-born striker Amber Barrett echoed their words around home support at last week’s squad announcement: ”It’s very important.

“It’s not even important for the whole thing of the women’s game. You’ve an Irish team in the World Cup qualifiers and you want to get as much support behind that as possible. It’s not about it being the women’s team and, ‘Oh, we have to support the women’. You’re not supporting the women, you’re supporting Ireland.

“One of the things I noticed from the Netherlands, you had groups and groups of men in droves that were going to support the Netherlands. They all said it after, ‘We’re not supporting the women’s team, we’re supporting the Netherlands’.

“We have to do that as well. Home advantage is important, we have to make the most of it but we can’t let ourselves get caught up in the occasion.”

She adds, of the possibility of reaching a first major tournament: “It’s maybe a typical cliché answer but ‘long way to go’. That is the dream for every player.

“Everybody has the same ambition, players and backroom team, and hopefully everyone getting behind us has the same ambition – giving us the best opportunity to do that. It would be an absolute dream come true but it might mean early retirement!”

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Ireland players acknowledge the crowd Ryan Byrne / INPHO 'Everyone has the same ambition.' Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Qualification is still a tall, tall order, as the players and manager alike keep reminding everyone. Their feet are firmly on the ground as their sole focus lies on Friday night. The visit of Slovakia and the 90 minutes of football between Ireland and those coveted three points.

They went head-to-head in Senec in October, two first-half goals from Denise O’Sullivan and Katie McCabe sealing a win for the Girls in Green.

“It was a tough match for us,” Bell recalls. “Slovakia had more possession than we did. We soaked it up, we sat back and caught them on the break. I think for that evening, it was the right thing to do.

“We kept them out. They didn’t have one goal-scoring chance in the whole 90 minutes. We have to be prepared that they may let us come a little bit and try to get us on the counter attack, thinking that because we’re playing at home, that all of a sudden things start to change in player’s heads: ‘Oh we’re playing at home, we’ve got to change something’ which I don’t agree with.

“For me, nothing changes. We can play all of our games in Ireland or we can play all of our games away from home, it doesn’t really matter to me because I just want to win every game.

“We just have to be on the ball and that we’re really prepared for every eventuality.”

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