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If not now, when? Pauw's Ireland have serious potential, but Euro 2022 campaign a missed opportunity

Emma Duffy reviews the Girls In Green’s campaign as a whole, and looks to the future.

A SOLITARY AND heartbroken Denise O’Sullivan on her honkers wiping away tears with her beloved Ireland jersey summed it up.

denise-osullivan-dejected-are-the-game Denise O'Sullivan after Ireland's Euro 2022 dream was dashed. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The bright lights of the carousel behind her were a stark contrast to the darkness of another campaign ultimately ending in failure, another qualification bid falling short as the wait to reach a first-ever major tournament goes on.

The fact of the matter is this was a missed opportunity for the Irish women’s national team.

Though their chances of qualifying were all but over before a ball was kicked at Tallaght Stadium, the 3-1 defeat to the powerhouse that is Germany just confirmed that. It all hit home seeing O’Sullivan’s gut-wrenching disappointment and sheer heartbreak. One of the best players in Europe won’t get the chance to show her class on the biggest stage in two years’ time. Instead, she’ll be watching from her couch, as will her impressive line-up of international team-mates, captain Katie McCabe another who has established herself as world-class of late. 

“We’re going to watch the World Cup with a determination that when the Euros come around, we’ll be there,” as striker Amber Barrett, who now plays her club football in Germany, said ahead of the 2019 finals in France.

Unfortunately, they’ll be doing the same once again when it comes to England 2022, and the determination is to be at the World Cup in New Zealand the following year. As the curtain came down on the campaign on Tuesday night, manager Vera Pauw stressed over and over that she firmly believes this team will be there… “If the draw is not too hard,” she added.

There’s other issues that we’ll get to shortly regarding their next bid, but to reflect on their recent one first, it was a massive chance, though things haven’t been exactly straightforward. 

The prospect of this group qualifying for a first championships really came onto the radar for most under Colin Bell, and having done their talking on the pitch after their fight for fairness against the FAI, their bid fell agonisingly short.

That said, holding European champions the Netherlands to a famous 0-0 draw in Nijmegen was a standout result, and the campaign in general brought a great feel-good factor, belief and optimism for the future. Indeed, it was the Dutch, who went on to reach the final, and top seeds and eventual quarter-finalists, Norway, who progressed from their group.

Hopes and prayers that the Euro 2021 qualifying draw would be kinder were answered, and although Germany were a different beast, the runners-up spot — which would lead to play-offs, at least — looked achievable. Ukraine were second seeds, with Greece and Montenegro also in the mix. In fact, on the eve of the opener, McCabe boldly declared Ireland’s intention to take top spot ahead of Germany.

Keep in mind, this was with the campaign preparation script ripped up and torn to shreds after the departure of Bell, ironically, during the World Cup. With Tom O’Connor in interim charge, the Girls In Green kicked off with an underwhelming 2-0 win over Montenegro (they beat them 9-0 the last time they played, and Germany put 10 past them just beforehand).

vera-pauw-dejected Vera Pauw and her side after defeat in Kiev. Source: Aleksandar Djorovic/INPHO

Pauw was waiting in the wings at Tallaght Stadium that night and the next day, the experienced Dutch coach was named manager. The Vera Era kicked off in style with a 3-2 win over Ukraine in front of a record venue on home soil and there was an overwhelming feeling that this was their time. 

That excitement was short-lived, however, as Greece snatched a late draw in Athens to bring the Irish party right back down to earth — a result which proved costly in the grand scheme of things, along with the main disaster in Kiev.

Revenge over the Greeks came in Tallaght while another win over Montenegro was recorded just before the Covid-19 lay-off, though a killer instinct wasn’t exactly shown. After the small matter of a pandemic and a disruption in proceedings, the big matter of facing all-conquering Germany in Essen followed. It ended 3-0, though Ireland could take positives: goals came from their own mistakes, they learned how to contain them and create chances, and they kept them scoreless in the second half. And of course, the eight-time champions had beaten Ukraine 8-0 twice.

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Kiev was the golden chance: avoid defeat and secure a play-off spot, at least. An own goal will last long in the memory for all the wrong reasons, as will a penalty miss and several other missed chances, as Ireland suffered a killer blow in the race for second place.

All hope was not gone but realistically, it was all over there and then. And Pauw conceded as much at the time. “We didn’t leave it here, we left it in Kiev,” she reiterated on Tuesday night, a night which really should have been a jubilant occasion regardless of the result against Germany — the group winners finished up with a 100% record, 46 goals scored and one conceded, after all.

But it was the furthest thing from that, even though Ireland’s performance was a promising one and the Ukraine-Montenegro result they needed to go in their favour so very nearly did. That all means little in the grand scheme of things, though: the time to qualify was now, and they really should have. Plain and simply, they missed the boat.

Stephanie Roche spoke strongly about it on RTÉ’s coverage afterwards: in brief, we’ve been saying, ‘Next time’ for long enough. But that’s all that can be said now as Ireland watch the excitement of a finals tournament from across the water as women’s football grows worldwide.

The big question now is whether Pauw will stay on to continue what she has started. Although done with heightened emotions, the Dutchwoman’s post-match interviews suggested her future lies with this team, with uncertainty due to be ironed out in the coming weeks as focus switches to preparation for the 2023 World Cup qualifiers.

Several players have given her their backing so presumably, it’s a matter of talks with the FAI now. But even with the caliber of players involved and the promising talent coming through, the order ahead is a tall one, making this missed opportunity even more painful.

While 16 nations will contest the next Euros, just eight from Europe are currently guaranteed to reach the World Cup. One or, maximum, two more berths may be afforded to the continent with the expansion of the tournament to 32 teams, but it’s a tough ask.

the-ireland-team-huddle-before-the-second-half The Irish team huddle in Tallaght Stadium. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Three successive defeats — two at the hands of Germany and the Kiev killer blow — will hamper Ireland’s seeding, and as John Fallon, writing in the Irish Examiner, says, they will have to top their group or navigate a difficult play-off as runners-up to qualify.

“Ireland’s plight is a consequence of essentially stagnating, on paper at least,” he added.

“Their tally of 13 points from eight points was identical to the previous campaign under Colin Bell, the tilt at reaching last year’s World Cup. Still, the main difference was the quality of the second seed they needed to dislodge.

“Netherlands had just won the European Championships before landing in Ireland’s group, whereas Ukraine, as the third-lowest of the nine options, was a plum draw for Ireland this time around.”

There’s absolutely no doubt about it, this was certainly Ireland’s best-ever chance to etch their names into history and qualify for a first-ever major tournament.

“If not now, when?” is a question that springs to mind. One just hopes that next time will certainly be the time, and that another golden opportunity like this doesn’t pass this quality group by.

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Emma Duffy

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