'I don’t want to jinx it but I’m really optimistic for what the future holds for Irish women’s football'

Ireland skipper Katie McCabe is taking it game by game in Euro 2021 qualifying with a ‘massive job to do in Montenegro’ next week.

ONE STEP CLOSER to making history.

At the halfway stage in Euro 2021 group qualifying, Ireland remain unbeaten. There may have been a few close calls, but the dream of reaching a first-ever major tournament is well and truly alive.

katie-mccabe-celebrates Ireland captain Katie McCabe. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Vera Pauw’s side inflicted sweet revenge on Group I rivals Greece at Tallaght Stadium on Thursday night with a hard-fought crucial 1-0 win, after the Greeks stole a late, late equaliser in Athens. On both occasions, Ireland dominated but were frustrated.

Luckily in Dublin, the hosts came away with all three points — Diane Caldwell popped up with the winner on the stroke of half time the night of her 75th cap — to add to earlier home wins over second seeds Ukraine (3-2) and Montenegro (2-0).

The return tie against the latter falls on Wednesday, and it’s another must-win game as the Girls In Green sit in that all-important second place position, six points clear of Greece and two off runaway leaders Germany (the group winners and three best second-placed sides qualify automatically. The six other runners-up head for play-offs.)

“We’ve shown how far we’ve come as a team,” captain Katie McCabe said after the Greek win, which was Pauw’s third game in charge. “What Vera has brought in, how we’re executing it as a team, what she wants us to do… it’s been fantastic so far.

“She’s basically Irish now! With Vera, the experience she has at playing level and obviously managerial level… she’s come in, she’s just simplistic, she’s fantastic, she makes it clear what she wants from us and we go out and do the job.

I’ve loved playing under her and leading the girls out, it’s been great. We’ve remained unbeaten so far in the campaign. I don’t want to jinx it but I’m really optimistic for what the future holds for Irish women’s football. 

She’s keeping her feet firmly on the ground though, saying very little, and not getting too carried away in the grand scheme of things.

Proud of how her side closed out the win over Greece having learned from past mistakes, the Arsenal ace says she wasn’t necessarily worried that Ireland didn’t convert one of their many other opportunities and score a second goal. 

“No, I think I’d be worried if we weren’t creating the chances. But we’ve found ourselves in really good positions in front of goal,” she added, with a nod to Rianna Jarrett up top and to North Carolina Courage star Denise O’Sullivan’s creativity around the middle.

vera-pauw-celebrates-with-katie-mccabe On the ball against Greece. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ever-consistent O’Sullivan was excellent once again, while Ruesha Littlejohn made her international return one to remember with a Player-of-the-Match winning performance.

“I thought she done it fantastically,” McCabe said of Cork native O’Sullivan, who played in a deeper, more defensive, midfield position alongside Liverpool’s Niamh Fahey, with Littlejohn in O’Sullivan’s usual 10 role.

“She picked her moments to go forward and to stay. Sitting in front of that back four, she was just picking up balls and being tidy for us. Her engine is something I’ve not seen before and I’ve played with her for long enough now that I know she’s going to pick up the ball in the right areas and it’s our job to go forward with it as well.”

And the 24-year-old Dubliner was particularly proud of her partner, Littlejohn.

Ruesha has been out of the team for the last three or four years, but to see her grind and grind… I’ve seen how hard she’s worked over the last number of months, weeks, years, it’s been a long time for her. To come in, get that start and to show to everybody that she deserves a place in the squad, it’s been fantastic for her. Delighted for her. 

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With serious competition and depth in the squad and some key players out with injury, McCabe is pleased that’s driving everyone on — “no one is safe, it keeps everyone on top of their game… you have to be performing at the top level to be making the squad now” — as the focus now switches to another huge game in Montenegro.

They travel today, so analysis on work-ons will be done en route as Ireland go in search of another three points. A victory there would be massive, and would effectively mean one foot in the play-offs, at least. 

“We definitely want the six points in these two games and we’re halfway there, we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves, we’ve a massive job to do over in Montenegro,” McCabe continued.

“They won’t make it easy for us, but we’ve showed tonight by the players we have, we’ve so much creativity in there and hopefully we get a few goals over there.”

katie-mccabe On the ball against Greece. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Understandably, they’re not looking past Montenegro but a result there would alleviate some pressure for the Germany away tie in April, and the return leg in September (Ukarine away is their other remaining fixture — “four massive games,”she stresses.)

“I suppose, the Germany game is always going to be a big one for us, they’re top seeds, they’ve dominated European and world football for years now,” McCabe nodded.

“Like that, we’ve shown what we can do against the big nations in previous years — obviously the famous result against the Netherlands — but look, as I said, I’m not going to get too far ahead and look at the Germans.

“It won’t mean anything if we don’t beat Montenegro.”

“I think it’s just important that we’ve put ourselves in a good position and it is about continuing to do it and keeping focused,” she added. “We’ve got ourselves in this position by focusing on the next game, and, as I said, we’ll worry about Montenegro and then the Germans when they come.”

One step closer to making history, but one game at a time.

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Emma Duffy

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