The Republic of Ireland Ireland WNT pose for a photo in support of Irish Cancer Society before training yesterday. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Katie McCabe's role in focus as Ireland finish Euro qualifier prep against Wales

A record crowd is expected at Tallaght Stadium tonight.

ONE MORE MOCK exam before The Real Thing.

Eileen Gleeson’s Ireland welcome Wales to Tallaght Stadium tonight [KO 7.30pm, RTÉ 2] in their final international friendly ahead of the 2025 European Championship qualifiers.

A record crowd is expected as the Girls In Green look to continue their unbeaten run under Gleeson in their first home game of 2024. They have been moving through the gears, enjoying a 100% record through the Nations League, before a 0-0 away draw to higher-ranked Italy on Friday.

The result is all the move impressive, given the tactical change Gleeson oversaw in her first game as permanent head coach. She moved away from the three/five at the back she and her predecessor, Vera Pauw, had deployed in recent years.

Whether we will see the same 4-4-1-1 formation against Wales, or a return to the repeatedly tried-and-tested, is the main pre-match talking point.

Gleeson was coy on the matter in her press conference yesterday, reinforcing the message that adaptability is key. Katie McCabe, who lined out at left-back, said playing in a back four was “refreshing”. 

Asked about Gleeson’s appointment, McCabe said: “It’s a fantastic appointment in my opinion and I think the FAI got it spot-on in terms of who they think should take this forward in order for us to qualify for the Euros.

“She’s got my full support, she knows that, as do the rest of the coaching staff.

“I’m so excited, I really feel we’ve got the ingredients to do something really special as a team.”

One of the key ingredients is indeed McCabe. Many argue that she is most effective higher up the pitch and more centrally, but she generally excels anywhere on the left. She spent most of the Pauw era at left wing-back, but in reality, she was pinned much further back and shackled at times. Her frustration at being regimented certainly shone through towards the end of the previous regime.

While she has starred in defence for Arsenal of late, generally switching between left- and right-back, for both club and country she’s a huge asset going forward. A naturally attack-minded player, her desire to get up the pitch is clear. At left-back, her defensive duties must come first, but as she says, it’s a fine balance.

katie-mccabe-with-martina-piemonte McCabe in action against Italy. Giuseppe Fama / INPHO Giuseppe Fama / INPHO / INPHO

“How do I go forward and when do I defend? Game intelligence,” she asserts.

“It’s reading the game. Obviously there’s versatility as to where I can play. So, for me, wherever my role is on the pitch I’m obviously doing it to 100% of my ability. But in terms of left-back, it’s reading the game, it’s reading the situations.

“If I feel like we’re safe at the back and I can go forward and push on and support the attack, I’ll absolutely do that. But if the girls need me back to defend, then I’ll be doing that as well. It’s really just the reading of the game and having the intelligence to do so.”

Gleeson chimes in, beside one of her most important players.

“We all know Katie’s attributes,” she says. “She is versatile, as she said, a forward player, a defensive player.

“We knew on Friday that Italy would have a real tilt to their right side, our left side, which meant we could maybe use the right side to get out. So Katie would do that job on the left side and keep it safe there, and Heather [Payne] could be more aggressive on the right side. And that’s what happened.

“Katie does a great job in that role and she is totally competent there and we trust her there. There’s other exciting talent coming through, particularly in those attacking areas, Izzy Atkinson, Jess Ziu, Leanne Kiernan, Heather Payne and Abbie Larkin. We have options to be versatile and for people to fill different roles against different opposition, which is a good thing.”

Whether McCabe will again line out at left-back in her 55th game as skipper – and 84th overall – remains to be seen. She predominantly played as a higher left wing-back or a twin 10 through the autumn, while Atkinson was on the wing against Italy.

Denise O’Sullivan – Ireland’s other most important player – is out of action with a minor knee setback, while fellow midfielders Sinead Farrelly, Tyler Toland and Jamie Finn are among the others unavailable with varying degrees of injury.

Louise Quinn could return from a shoulder injury tomorrow, with Gleeson confirming a fully-fit squad, while an international debut may await recently-declared striker Emily Murphy. But she’ll have plenty of competition in attack, with Leanne Kiernan and Amber Barrett both making their respective cases from the bench in Florence.

colin-healy-and-emma-byrne-with-eileen-gleeson Eileen Gleeson and her coaching staff. Giuseppe Fama / INPHO Giuseppe Fama / INPHO / INPHO

Wales, meanwhile, are under the watchful eye of interim manager Jon Grey after the departure of Gemma Grainger for Norway. Rhian Wilkinson was announced as their permanent head coach last night.

Ireland will be favourites — eight places higher in the Fifa World Rankings, having won most of their recent meetings. But that means little to Cymru, who have no shortage of good players themselves. Gleeson name-checks Jess Fishlock, one of three US-based stars, while Ireland’s WSL contingent will be familiar with the likes of Hayley Ladd, Gemma Evans, Sophie Ingle and Ceri Holland. Like their hosts, they have plenty of promising youngsters in the mix, too.

Despite being relegated from League A of the Nations League, Wales drew 0-0 with Germany, so this will be another good test for Ireland ahead of the Euro 2025 qualifiers.

It’s all about tonight, but what about the draw next Tuesday — and the possibility of being pitted against England? McCabe sidesteps the easy headline to keep her focus on Wales.

“Could get England, Spain, France… we could get them all. I mean what will be will be.

“I’m not fixated on any countries in particular, only focused on us. It will be interesting to see who we get but there’ll be no England-Ireland narrative there.”

Whoever it is, Ireland will be mixing it up with Europe’s elite in League A.

“It’s where we want to be,” Gleeson concludes. “We have to act like we belong there.”

They can take another step towards proving they do tonight.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel