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'It's great the FAI are behind us, giving us the charter flight in these terrible conditions with Covid'

Virus threat overshadows monumental week for Irish women’s football – but Girls in Green covering all bases.

The Ireland team huddle earlier in the campaign.
The Ireland team huddle earlier in the campaign.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Updated Oct 20th 2020, 12:00 PM

IN AN IDEAL world, football is all that would be discussed as Ireland prepare for a monumental Euro 2022 qualifier, but unfortunately, the world is far from ideal right now.

There are much bigger issues at play through the Covid-19 pandemic.

The virus has claimed many lives across the world and made millions very, very sick, so in the grand scheme of things, it feels strange to be talking about its impact on football.

But as Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp says, football is “the most important of the least important things.” And while it mightn’t seem important to some, this is up there with one of the biggest weeks in the history of the Irish women’s game.

The Girls In Green face Ukraine in Kiev on Friday [KO 5pm Irish time, live on RTÉ Two] in arguably their biggest game ever as the bid to qualify for a first-ever major tournament continues.

A win or a draw would guarantee Vera Pauw’s side of a playoff spot, at least. For everyone involved, this is huge.

But, of course, the threat of a Covid outbreak looms large and overshadows the excitement. There is huge concern, as Pauw stressed yesterday, despite every base being covered and avenue explored with regards protocols and precautions.

From testing pre-camp, later today and again tomorrow before flying from their German training base of Duisburg to Kiev on Thursday, to a charter flight and strict rules in hotels, Pauw and her staff have meticulously prepared for all eventualities, but the threat remains.

Just look at the recent outbreak in Stephen Kenny’s bubble, as star striker Rianna Jarrett points out.

“Hearing all the reports that came out of the men’s game and in terms of Covid throughout the world at the minute, I think a lot of countries are going through what they call the second wave and cases are starting to rise quite rapidly.

“The last camp, we were fortunate that we could get through the whole camp without any Covid cases or scares. For us, we know we have to up the ante from the first minute we’re in camp until the time we go back to our clubs.

We saw it with the men’s team and it hits that bit closer to home, so you can’t be too careful.

“We have great medical staff and guidelines and we’re just making sure that we follow them, take no risks and make sure that we have everyone on that flight to Ukraine and that we have everyone available for the game on Friday, which is the most important thing.”

The Brighton & Hove Albion striker says Ireland camp is a “completely different set-up” to that of the Seagulls through the pandemic, with players convening from several clubs and countries across Europe.

While alert at all times in the bubble, it will be an intense few days, but that goes hand-in-hand with top-level sport in the current climate.

“We don’t have the luxury of going home to our own houses and switching off,” Jarrett continues, “but any of us playing international football, yes Covid is a new situation but we’re used to travelling, we’re used to being out of our comfort zone.

Camp is that little bit different. We’re all very friendly and get on off the pitch, gathering around each other. Irish people, when we greet, we give each other hugs and that has obviously all been taken away but we’re fortunate that we’re able to be here given all that is going on around the world.

“That football is still going on is fantastic and being able to play these qualifiers even though they are later than what was originally planned.”

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“It’s just important that we work together because we have the guidelines and the protocols, stick together and help each other out because the task is to make sure we have everyone available for Friday’s game,” she adds.

“We will put everything else aside but the important thing is we all remain healthy and hopefully Covid free.”

rianna-jarrett-and-leanne-kiernan-with-natiya-pantsulaya Kiernan and Jarrett facing Ukraine last time out. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

One welcome step the FAI have taken is ensuring the women’s team travel by charter flight (for the first time) from Duisburg to Kiev on Thursday. As Pauw explained yesterday, it decreases the risk of contracting the virus in an airport on in transit.

And this historic news comes as a huge boost to players.

“What can I say,” 21-year-old attacker Leanne Kiernan beamed yesterday. “Women are coming up in the world! It’s great for a women’s team in Ireland to be getting on a charter flight. That’s a big deal. That probably wouldn’t have happened a few years ago.”

In a way, so, is there an element of added pressure to repay the FAI’s faith?

“Of course there are pressures,” the West Ham ace continued, “but growing up, my parents would always say pressure’s for tyres, you want to perform on the big day and that’s why you train so hard week in, week out.

“Of course it’s great that the FAI are behind us and we appreciate that, giving us the charter flight in these terrible conditions at the minute with Covid. But they are doing that because they believe in us and we believe in us, that we are going to get a result.

“So there is a bit of pressure, but obviously we are going there to get a result.”

Hell-bent on reaching a major tournament and repeating the feat of her former Scottish Hammers housemates at last summer’s World Cup, Kiernan feels Ireland have a “great chance” — and they must take it. 

She feels there is “more to come from Leanne” on the international stage, as well as from this special group of players. And she firmly believes that this can be women’s football’s Euro ’88 moment, with qualification for Euro 2022 paramount.

The time is now.

“We are all hoping that,” the Cavan native concluded. “It’s a massive game and everybody knows the whole hype behind the game. But we’ll just focus on the game and hopefully it will go our way.

“As a young player you want to be in this position and to experience all these games and to be around a team that is going to qualify for tournaments. We are just hoping we can get to England.”

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Emma Duffy

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