The Ireland XI at Windsor Park last night. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

'Lacking motivation' talk irks Ireland as they end batshit year with a bang

McCabe and Eileen Gleeson were not best pleased with some commentary and questioning before last night’s rout of Northern Ireland.

EILEEN GLEESON AND Katie McCabe raised the same point unprompted at Windsor Park last night.

“We had a lot of distractions about whether we lacked motivation or hadn’t got personality,” the interim head coach said after the Republic of Ireland completed their perfect Nations League campaign with a 6-1 hammering of Northern Ireland.

“We didn’t want to listen to that. We know who we are and that showed on the pitch.”

The captain echoed her words. “There was talk around us lacking motivation for this game which was incredible to think people were questioning that,” McCabe said.

“We were always motivated, wanting to make sure we finished this campaign with six wins from six. I am very proud of the girls for doing that.”

There was some confusion in the press room afterwards. Doubts had been aired, particularly on Off The Ball, in the wake of a scrappy 1-0 win over Hungary on Friday: might it be an underwhelming close to a long, winding and downright batshit World Cup year with promotion to League A already secured in the Nations League? Northern Ireland, meanwhile, still had a play-off incentive as they battled with Hungary for second place.

In a separate post-match interview, Gleeson referenced “sideways questions about whether we’d even be trying to win” while there had been queries about subconscious complacency in recent days.

Neither her, or McCabe, were best pleased by whatever they heard.

But ultimately, it worked.

Despite the caretaker manager saying they didn’t want to listen to it, she did say the group spoke about it before their sixth win from six.

It evidently fired them up and Ireland played like a team with a point to prove, saving their best performance of the campaign until last as they ended 2023 with a bang.

Fourteen games was their most-ever in a calendar year, while the sheer amount of time they spent together through the highs, lows and everything in between is staggering.

vera-pauw Vera Pauw at the World Cup homecoming. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Negative distraction, unwanted headlines and general noise and drama has been rife since World Cup qualification in October 2022.

From ‘Ooh Ah Up The Ra’ to allegations of misconduct against Vera Pauw in a NWSL report, it was a controversy-laden end to a momentous year.

The build-up to their first-ever major tournament was similarly clouded by off-field issues. Most significantly, fresh allegations against Pauw emerged in an investigative report by The Athletic on the eve of Ireland’s departure for Australia.

One distraction of that magnitude would be exceptional in one year — never mind two — but a baptism of fire awaited Down Under.

Their final warm-up game against Colombia was abandoned after 20 minutes, with Denise O’Sullivan a major injury concern for several days.

Within a few short weeks, the dream all but turned into a nightmare.

Tensions eventually reached boiling point, and all hell broke loose as Ireland bowed out.

Who could forget the Pauw and McCabe over-and-back and that zipped-mouth emoji on Twitter? The stunned reporters in the press area of Brisbane Stadium certainly won’t.

In the wake of Pauw’s messy departure and the subsequent fallout, Diane Caldwell had the last say with a hard-hitting assessment of her management style.

More eyes, more expectation, more pressure.

They did play some football amidst it all, too. While Gleeson kept a 100% 2023 record Pauw’s stands at one win, five defeats and two draws, albeit against mostly higher-ranked opposition.

The two standout losses were to co-hosts Australia and Olympic champions Canada at the World Cup.

katie-mccabe-celebrates-scoring-her-sides-fourth-goal Katie McCabe after scoring for Ireland last night. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Autumn has been significantly more straightforward against lower quality sides in Northern Ireland, Hungary and Albania, but no one can dismiss Ireland’s stats – 20 goals for, two against – as they implement a more front-footed style and blood new players amidst increasing competition.

All players have reflected fondly on the year overall, though have continually referenced its intensity.

“Full-on,” was how Ruesha Littlejohn put it, with O’Sullivan not shying away from how tough it’s been and like Megan Connolly, admitted the World Cup feels like “a lifetime ago”.

“We were actually talking about it – [we've spent] one third of the year together this year,” Izzy Atkinson added. “We had one hundred and something days together out of the 365, which is mad. We’re sick of each other!”

If you had been put through all of the above in a year, and were continually pushed to your limit both physically and mentally, might you be lacking motivation?

Possibly yes, but ultimately, talk of this may have driven Ireland on to their best showing of the Nations League campaign — and perhaps of their year overall. 

One thing is for sure: whatever 2024 brings, it surely cannot be more crazy than 2023.

And as McCabe has said in the past, representing Ireland to the best of their ability is the only motivation she and her team ever need.

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