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'Ugly win,' but huge result on the road sparks Ireland's World Cup dream

Katie McCabe: ‘It’s obviously the standards we’ve set now, and we’ve got belief that we can carry forward. We have to build off this.’

Katie McCabe with departing assistant manager Eileen Gleeson after the 2-1 win over Finland.
Katie McCabe with departing assistant manager Eileen Gleeson after the 2-1 win over Finland.
Image: Kalle Parkkinen/INPHO

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND captain Katie McCabe called it “an ugly win” afterwards, while Denise O’Sullivan said it “wasn’t pretty”.

But football, as we all know, is a results business, so a 2-1 victory over Finland, Ireland’s main rivals for second place in their World Cup qualifying group, was nothing short of beautiful.

It didn’t matter how it was done, but Vera Pauw’s side simply could not leave Helsinki empty-handed. They needed to open their account. It may or may not have been a must-win game against Group A’s second seeds, but it certainly was a must-not-lose one.

It was crucial; a defeat would have been a significant blow to Ireland’s chances of qualifying for a first-ever major tournament, a draw would have kept them on track, but a win well and truly sparks the World Cup dream on the road to Australia and New Zealand 2023.

Cork duo Megan Connolly and Denise O’Sullivan were the goal-scoring heroes at the electric Olympic Stadium, but each and every player in green gave it absolutely everything.

Having fallen to a 1-0 defeat to heavyweights Sweden in Tallaght Stadium on Thursday, the players admitted afterwards that this was The Big One. While reluctant to at times, Pauw eventually said it herself. This was ‘The Game’ of the campaign.

As she has stressed time and time again, they’re realistic. With the Swedes more than likely to run away with top spot, and direct qualification, the real battle is for a play-off position.

Ireland made no secret of how tough it was going to be against the side ranked 25th in Fifa’s world rankings – eight places above themselves – but they stepped right up to the challenge, and took another massive stride in the right direction.

“We knew it was going to be very, very tough coming here and they’d have the ball at times,” as McCabe told RTÉ afterwards. “It was an ugly win, but we got the three points.

“I think it’s obviously the standards we’ve set now, and we’ve got belief that we can carry forward. We’ve got a massive double-header of games next month, so we just have to build off this.

“Hopefully we can pack out Tallaght with two home games, we’ll be looking forward to seeing the fans come support us.”

megan-connolly-celebrates-after-scoring-a-goal-with-denise-osullivan-katie-mccabe-and-lucy-quinn Celebrating Megan Connolly's opener. Source: Kalle Parkkinen/INPHO

The double-header the Arsenal star is referring to is Slovakia on 25 November, and Georgia on the 30th, both hosted by Tallaght Stadium. There’s no question about it, it’s vital that Ireland now back up their solid start with maximum points against the fourth and fifth seeds respectively.

Pauw has already warned of the potential banana skin Slovakia can pose, but performing — and delivering — against lesser sides is the big challenge now. Holding onto a lead is something Ireland may have struggled with in the past, but not last night.

The Dutch coach’s experiment of facing higher-ranked opposition through a series of friendlies has appeared to pay dividends. Ireland endured a difficult run of results, totting up a seven-game losing streak on a steep learning curve, but a turning point arrived in a friendly against Australia last month.

Just in time for the new campaign, and amidst a string of positive developments off the pitch, from pay parity with their male counterparts to massive deals with Sky and Cadbury.

Now, this group of special players really believe in themselves, perhaps best seen by McCabe, Connolly, and Lucy Quinn all hovering over a free-kick in the 10th minute, which Connolly sent into the back of the net.

Many would have expected McCabe to pull the trigger, and unleash her deadly left boot, but Cork’s Brighton and Hove Albion ace got Ireland off the mark.

“Well, she backed herself so I don’t mind that,” the skipper smiled afterwards. “If you’re confident… she stepped up and stuck it into the back of the net, which I was obviously delighted with. We got ourselves in great positions at times and ultimately came away with the three points.”

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That was the perfect parting gift for Eileen Gleeson; the assistant coach departing to take charge of Glasgow City imminently, and ultimately all that mattered at the end of the day.

While Adelina Engman’s equaliser was a gut-wrenching one — created down McCabe’s left flank in her absence, as she received treatment on the sideline for a nibble from the former Chelsea player — it amounted to little in the grand scheme of things.

“Ah, I was furious,” the Kilnamanagh ace scowled. “Look, obviously it was a bit of a lapse.

“We were a player down at that stage. I think we showed great character then to come back. Denise [O'Sullivan] ran her socks off all game and I’m just delighted for her, that she got the winner in the end.

“Denise finished it off, but Heather Payne ran her socks off tonight too. There were great performances in midfield from Jamie [Finn] and Megan [Connolly]. All in all, I think we just showed great character to come back.”

That, they certainly did.

With momentum on heir side, they must do the same next month and keep the dream intact; ugly, pretty, or otherwise.

BTL 5

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Emma Duffy

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