Staying in the spotlight - Don't forget that Ireland's World Cup dream is still alive

Reviewing the recent double-header and previewing June’s crucial one with Norway, which will ultimately determine Ireland’s fate.

HIGHS AND LOWS, ups and downs, swings and roundabouts.

Ireland’s recent double-header of World Cup qualifiers had all of those and more, in abundance. A win over Slovakia, a loss to The Netherlands, but still in the race. The dream to reach a first-ever major tournament in the form of France 2019 lives on. It may have been dealt a blow, they may have to do it the hard way now, but it’s still possible.

Leanne Kiernan celebrates scoring her sides first goal with Katie McCabe Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Honestly, I don’t think I ever remember as much hype around the Women’s National Team (WNT) in the lead-up to a game as there was before The Netherlands. They were everywhere. In the spotlight for all the right reasons.

A far cry from why they had been little over a year ago, when they voiced their anger and took a grave stance against the FAI at Liberty Hall, demanding better working conditions. You could see it in each and every one of the player’s faces that day: they did not want to be there. They didn’t want that spotlight.

But it had to be done. Off-the-field issues had to be sorted before on-the-field ones could, and since that agreement was reached, it appears that things have gone from strength to strength.

Unbeaten as they opened the home side of their qualifying campaign, Ireland had sent out a strong statement of intent. They were serious contenders in Group 3, and they genuinely believed that.

Colin Bell had them well-drilled. He talked the talk. Not only that, but walked the walk.

That 0-0 draw with the European champions in Nijmegen in November well and truly put the spotlight on the team and that carried through. The buzz on social media, even just the players themselves tweeting, this all gathered more support.

Two record-breaking crowds turned out in the space of a week. That was huge.

Thinking back to the first of the two qualifiers, Amber Barrett’s 87th-minute winner is of course the standout moment against Slovakia. It grabbed the headlines and the plaudits understandably, but there was much more to that fixture than a stunning late goal.

It looked like it wasn’t going to be, their dream of reaching a first-ever major tournament dented by the basement side in Group 3 before their focus even switched to the visit of the European champions four days later.

It could easily have happened.

The first half was quite an uneventful one but Ireland always looked in control and dominant in front of 3,521 spectators. Confident on the ball, they began to find their flow as chances were created, nothing too threatening that said.

Credit must go to Slovakia as they upped the ante on the restart, urging the hosts to push on and score that all-important goal needed to take all three points on offer. Shelbourne striker Leanne Kiernan did just that, breaking the deadlock in the 69th minute. It was all they needed. Hold on now, sit tight. More goals would come as a welcome bonus.

Amber Barrett celebrates scoring her sides second goal with teammates Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Two minutes later and the mutual feeling around the ground was sheer disbelief. “How did that even happen?” I remember thinking to myself in the press box, as similar questions were thrown around the terraces.

It was 1-1. A bizarre blunder by goalkeeper Marie Hourihan, a mix-up between herself and her defence, saw the ball in the back of the net and the hosts silenced. Honestly, I thought that was that. It just felt like the golden opportunity had come and gone, and a point was as good as it was going to get.

But not this team, not these players. They believed that they could do it and the hunger and true character prevailed. Player of the Match Karen Duggan — who slotted seamlessly into left-back with many sidelined through injury, and probably wasn’t given enough credit for that — played the perfect ball over the top to super sub Barrett who smashed home her first international goal.

The scenes.

The dream was still well and truly alive, Ireland could count themselves lucky.

Big, big improvements were needed and Colin Bell made no bones about that in the aftermath. The relief was there but it was straight on to the next challenge. A mammoth one it was, and all the expectations turned into reality on Tuesday night.

After the 0-0 draw on that famous night in Nijmegen last November, it was fairly obvious that ‘the best team in the world on their day’ were coming to Dublin seeking revenge, hoping to hammer Ireland and show the world that that slip-up was a once off.

On a miserable night, another record-breaking crowd of 4,047 packed into the stadium but the return leg wasn’t to be such a joyous occasion for Ireland. It ended 2-0, but the deficit could have been much, much more.

A Dutch double in the first half — Bayern Munich striker Lineth Beerensteyn on 11 minutes and a Sherida Spitse penalty, albeit awarded in controversial circumstances, with 23 on the clock — did the damage and left Ireland chasing their tails.

They were on the back foot from the get-go, it was a bridge just too far. The European champions did fairly school them and again, the final result could have been a lot uglier.

On the other hand though, Ireland were resolute, and much better after the break. There were glimpses of brightness – Kiernan and Barrett’s chasing up top, solid defensive work in the second half and the ever-impressive Denise O’Sullivan’s ferocious work around the middle.

It was ultimately errors which led to the first-half double, and cost them dearly. And Bell was brutally honest in his post-match assessment, his frustration shining through as he criticised and questioned his side. Dead right, that honesty is needed.

Denise O'Sullivan dejected Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I’m trying to get away from this mentality of ‘We only lost 2-0 against the European champions, who are probably the best team in the world… Brilliant,’” he added.

“No, we lost and we could have got a draw at least.”

The disappointment afterwards said it all. The days of moral victories are well and truly in the past. The winning mentality that Bell has brought to the set-up has been a revelation, likewise with the standards he sets.

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So, the Girls in Green’s bid to qualify for the 2019 World Cup took a hit. The end of their unbeaten streak comes as a slight wake up call. Progression to the finals is still a possibility, although the direct route is looking very unlikely as it stands.

I attempted to crunch the numbers on Wednesday and figure out how they can get there. It’s a tough, tough path but it can be done. The main takeaway is that it can’t be underestimated how crucial the Norway double-header in June will be.

A minimum of two points from those back-to-back clashes as well as a win over Northern Ireland would potentially be enough to see Ireland finish in that coveted runners-up position. But then it’s a whole other story, with just the four best-ranked second-place teams making the play-offs.

The support is there, evident from the two record-breaking crowds that turned out to Tallaght and the hype that has surrounded the team media-wise and elsewhere over the last week or 10 days.

That support needs to stay with the team as they head into June. The home tie is on the 8th and the return leg is fixed for the 12th. The 12th man at Tallaght Stadium could be the difference as Bell’s charges host the top seeds (that’s often forgotten). Another record-breaking crowd would be phenomenal considering the progress made. Staying in the spotlight.

There is a long way to go, a lot to work on — fitness in particular — and many more improvements to be made across the board. But they are still in this competition, that’s the main thing. The belief is there.

With a strong number of players still playing their football on home soil in the Women’s National League (WNL), they return to their clubs this weekend and why not keep the support going at grassroots level?

The need for improvement there for the game to grow further is a story for another day but for now, why not continue to ride that crest the national team have been riding and bring it right down to ground level.

Keep that support going.

Katie McCabe Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

As Barrett brilliantly told The42 in the days leading up to the Slovakia game:

“It’s not even important for the whole thing of the women’s game. You’ve an Irish team in the World Cup qualifiers and you want to get as much support behind that as possible.

“It’s not about it being the women’s team and, ‘Oh, we have to support the women’. You’re not supporting the women, you’re supporting Ireland.”

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Explainer: How Ireland can still qualify for the 2019 World Cup

Another record-breaking crowd turns out to Tallaght for Ireland’s World Cup qualifier

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Emma Duffy

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