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Dublin: 2 °C Tuesday 25 February, 2020
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The Vera Era: Oh, what a night as Pauw's Ireland look in good stead to reach next level

Plenty of positives for the Girls in Green on an historic night in Tallaght.

AS OH WHAT a night rang out on Tallaght Stadium’s sound system on Tuesday night, it was a fitting close to just that for the Ireland Women’s National Team. 

katie-mccabe-celebrates-scoring-her-sides-first-goal-with-teammates An emotional Katie McCabe celebrates scoring her side's first goal. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

A new era started largely on a high as Vera Pauw’s first game in charge — a crucial Euro 2021 qualifier against Ukraine — finished up a 3-2 thriller in favour of the hosts in front of a record crowd of 5,328. Although it was nowhere near the sold-out fixture the FAI had billed, each and every one of the fans in Tallaght made their voices heard, and the noise and excitement when hometown hero Katie McCabe rattled the net at The Square end in the 25th minute said it all. 

The captain made no mistake in finishing off an excellent team move, the first goal of the Vera Era fittingly an all-out counter-attack one. As she had done all night, midfield maestro Denise O’Sullivan tore Group I’s second seeds apart with a brilliant pass over the top, which in turn, found Player of the Match Rianna Jarrett. 

Wexford Youths star Jarrett, one of three home-based players in Pauw’s first squad, saw her colossal work up top pay dividends in a real coming of age performance in the green jersey, as she put the ball on a plate for McCabe before the Arsenal star smashed the ball into the bottom corner with a first-touch, composed finish. 

Rightly so, the celebration was far from composed as the Dubliner ran straight for the crowd, emotional in doing so, and while her team-mates swarmed her, you could see just how much it meant to the Girls in Green. 

It hasn’t been the easiest few months for the side. Left high and dry by Colin Bell’s shock departure just nine weeks before this new campaign kicked off, preparation was far from ideal. While they just wanted to play football, the build-up was dominated by off-the-field matters as the search for the Englishman’s successor proved a lengthy process.

Tom O’Connor took over on an interim basis for a friendly international against world champions USA at the Rose Bowl, and was there again for their opening qualifier against group minnows Montenegro. Although Ireland won 2-0 that September night, it was a far from convincing performance and definitely not the goal-fest many had expected.

Watching on, the atmosphere was strange. Afterwards, the questions all revolved around the managerial situation, or the lack of goals. They did come to Dublin to park the bus, but the last time Ireland played Montenegro, it finished 9-0. And runaway group leaders Germany had beaten them 10-0 just a few days beforehand. 

So, of course, that McCabe goal was important, as was the new sense of freedom and positivity Ireland were playing with. The good feeling continued when Jarrett — who has remarkably bounced back from three torn cruciates, and is playing the football of her life — headed home her first international goal two minutes later; the home fans erupting to see their heroes 2-0 up and comfortably dominating proceedings. 

Tallaght was bouncing and social media awash with praise after the most exciting start possible to this new regime. The two-goal lead was short-lived, however, as Ukraine capitalised on errors to pull two back by half time. A Marie Hourihan fumble and a Megan Connolly mis-kick were ultimately what allowed the visitors back into the game, but Pauw and her players held their hands up for what happened afterwards. 

Mistakes happen in every aspect of life, it’s how one responds to them. Ireland came out fighting on the restart; the optimism, passion and hunger from players and coaches, or “fighting spirit,” as the Dutch coach alluded to time and time again afterwards ultimately getting them over the line.

Atletico Madrid defender Natiya Pantsulaya’s own goal in the 52nd minute made it 3-2, but no way were Ireland letting that slip again: “We were there to win and when we were 3-2 up, it was only over our dead bodies that the ball was going to go in,” as Pauw said.

The outpour of emotion as the full-time whistle sounded was lovely to see, as were the players’ interactions with their adoring fans. There were high fives, smiles and selfies all around as Ireland made it two wins out of two, and took six points from six, in their Euro 2021 qualifiers to date. 

megan-campbell-celebrates-after-the-game-with-young-fans Megan Campbell with fans afterwards. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Post-match, Pauw was incredibly generous with her time, spending over 24 minutes with the media as she beamed from ear-to-ear with an Ireland scarf wrapped proudly around her neck. Open and honest throughout, she spent a lot of time discussing tactics; what the squad had worked on in camp, why players were where they were, a pre-prepared formation change and she even touched on Ukraine’s shape and tactics.

It was refreshing to witness her methodical football brain at work and the passion and energy she spoke with, her words spreading confidence that there are good things ahead.

She firmly believes her side are in with a shout of automatic qualification for England 2021 if all goes to plan, so why shouldn’t everyone else? 

Pauw stressed the importance of being realistic in her pre-match press conference: Germany, who have also beat Ukraine 8-0 at home and way, and Greece 5-0 — have top spot more or less sealed, and it’s all about the race for second place.

Ireland are the only other team in the group with points. (The group winners and the three best runners-up will join hosts England in the final tournament, with the other six runners-up playing off in October 2020 for three spots.)

Wins over Greece and Montenegro, a positive result against Ukraine away and damage limitation against Germany (who they face away in April and at home next September), could Ireland see qualify for a first-ever major tournament, Pauw reckons. 

With a trip to Greece next up next month, the 56-year-old will travel to Athens next week to scout out the facilities to be used. She doesn’t “want any surprises”. Her attention to detail is glaringly evident, and that’s perhaps best seen in her stance on down time. 

A long camp was important for her coming in for the first time, but she actually shortened it for players’ happiness.

vera-pauw-celebrates-after-the-game Pauw after the game. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“We started [last] Wednesday, not Monday, because I found that too long,” she explained. “After they come back from their clubs they first need to see their family before they dive into the next camp. So that you can close off one and start with the other.

“If you live abroad, and you are young, then you have the urge of course to see your family first. That’s what we do and that’s what we will do again. Then it’s exactly the right amount of days. I said this afternoon, it would not have been good to have an extra day: we need to play now.”

“They are fresh then,” Pauw added. “Otherwise you are in camp and constantly have that feeling that you want to go home.

You need to sleep in your own bed, in your own environment with your own people. With your partner, or your parents or brothers and sisters or whoever is important for you. Then you have a fresh mood to start with. That’s my philosophy.

There was glowing praise for the talent in her squad, and what they had done under her watchful eye over such a short period of training. There was no time for “special attention,” with Megan Campbell’s breathtakingly long throw-ins hardly worked on, for example.

The Manhester City star’s first 90 minutes in green in quite some time was a huge positive on Tuesday, as was Celtic defender Keeva Keenan’s impressive full debut and Leanne Kiernan’s international return after a tough few months with injury. The Cavan youngster showed just how much in meant in our quick catch-up afterwards, telling The42 how indescribable the feeling of coming off the bench was.

Kiernan came up in the press conference, Pauw telling how she felt the 20-year-old couldn’t get into the game. And Man City 18-year-old Tyler Toland: how “she is not the player she normally is,” so she’ll visit her club and work to get the best out of her. 

That attention to detail again. 

“I picked the best players,” she added when asked if she favoured experience. “I did not make my line-up on the basis of age. If you ask me who has the most caps, I don’t know. That is not something I look at.”

With the U17s and U19s both reaching the Elite Round of their European Championship qualifiers in recent weeks, Pauw sees plenty of room for growth and serious potential in her side going forward.

With her philosophy of the right mix of creative players, and those disciplined players who allow them to create, on show on Tuesday night, and working brilliantly at times, it’s crazy to think that this set-up only had a few days together. 

“They’ll grow in flexibility,” Pauw assured, pleased with everything she’s overseen already. “The game itself already showed a bit of it but that needs to improve. The squad are so talented. You see the amount of concentration they put in and the eagerness to learn, every training it goes better.

“I don’t know where the ceiling is for these players, we will see… but by far, not reached.

“Lots of work to do… lots of thinking,” she concluded.

From everything we’ve seen so far, it seems like Vera Pauw is the right person to bring this side to the next level.

And oh, what a night to mark the start of this new era.

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Emma Duffy

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