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Letter from Bratislava: Another stop along the way as Ireland's journey continues

Vera Pauw’s World Cup play-off bound side face Slovakia in their final group game today.

Ireland captain Katie McCabe with her Ireland team-mates before training.
Ireland captain Katie McCabe with her Ireland team-mates before training.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Updated Sep 6th 2022, 8:30 AM

FROM BEAUTIFUL Bratislava to scenic Senec.

It’s a very picturesque part of the world.

But just another stop along the way for the Republic of Ireland women’s national team.

Vera Pauw’s side are on a journey, the 2023 World Cup the ultimate destination.

They secured an historic play-off position with a nervy 1-0 win over Finland in Tallaght Stadium on Thursday, and another victory against Slovakia this evening could shorten the road [KO 5pm Irish time, live on RTÉ 2].

Ever so slightly anyway, as they look to round of their Group A run on a high.

After a string over other results went their way, three points in Senec would send the Girls In Green directly into the second round of the convoluted play-off system.

They’ll stay firmly grounded, not thinking too far ahead just yet, but they can dare to dream a little more after last week’s monumental achievement. 

Step by step, stop by stop.

*****

Yesterday’s commute began at Dublin Airport, which you’ll be glad to hear, was a breeze.

Minus the bleary eyes getting on the red-eye flight to Vienna.

Not a whole pile more of the Austrian capital was taken in than the arrivals hall, as a gang of journalists and reporters piled into a minibus to Bratislava.

It was to be the theme of the day, both the Slovakian and Irish press conferences hit. 

A wild goose chase at times — perhaps fitting it’s the scene of the crime of the FAI Disco Train of 2010 — but certainly worthwhile in the end.

The pressers were in completely opposite directions from Bratislava, so there was limited time to explore the Slovakian capital before getting to work. From was seen at the time of writing, it’s a really lovely city. Built on the River Danube, there’s the castle, the old town, the winding cobble streets lined with quaint cafés, bars and restaurants. A real feel of Eastern Europe, compact and quiet but strikingly different in every corner.

a-view-of-the-ntc-senec-ahead-of-ireland-training A view of the NTC Senec. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The sun beats down, the heat still searing as summer turns to autumn.

The Slovakian presser was at X-Bionic Sphere, Samorin, an impressive sport and leisure resort and home to Peter Kopúň’s side for this camp. It was an interesting interview, the manager speaking through an interpreter but chit-chatting in decent English when the tapes stopped recording afterwards.

He praised Ireland, but not too much, bullish as he targets a win over Group A’s “dark horse”. This evening’s game could be Kopúň’s last as manager as his contract comes to an end, but he seemed hopeful for more as he reflected on the development of this team.

There’s a noticeable lack of support, though. In Bratislava, or indeed Senec, you wouldn’t know there’s a World Cup qualifier on. Asked how much of a crowd there’ll be tomorrow, the manager sighed:

“I would say in Slovakia the numbers are more or less the same for every match, we at least expect them to come in more or less the same numbers that they would normally come.”

563 fans attended their home game against Sweden earlier in the campaign, not a patch on the crowds at Tallaght Stadium of late. Tickets are understood to be €1.

“The performance in Slovakia is making progress, the level of our play.” Kopún added.

IMG_7010 The Slovakian press conference.

“And then the interest of the fans, which maybe is not so great, but we’re working on it as well. We get help from Uefa with some projects that they have to increase its popularity, we have seen a recent finals tournament in women’s football [Euro 2022] with big crowds coming, people can see that as well here, so that might give them an idea we can do that here. And hopefully the projects that have been initiated in Slovakia will also help, or contribute to that goal.”

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The Ireland presser was at the picturesque NTC Senec stadium, set by a lake 25km or so away. A holiday resort with no shortage of water sports on offer, the 3,200-seater stadium is by far the centrum of the area, but was brought to life by the Irish set-up.

Pauw and stalwart defender Louise Quinn were on media duty; the empty seat situation at Tallaght Stadium the other night still gnawing at the manager, but the rest of it overwhelmingly positive.

Growth, growth, growth. 

Solutions will be found for the absences of three starters against Finland — Megan Connolly, Ruesha Littlejohn (both injury) and Jamie Finn (suspension) — Pauw assured, with Niamh Fahey also ruled out. Expect a fairly similar XI, though: goal-scoring super-sub Lily Agg will slot in for Littlejohn; Megan Campbell may shift to the left of the back three, Connolly having done so in place of Fahey; and Chloe Mustaki could line out at left-wing-back. That may be the easiest fix, but other chances could be given.

There was a giddiness before the players began training, an excitement in the air but an overriding sense that there’s another job to be done.

A sizeable media contingent has travelled to watch them do it, a real sign of the upward trajectory this team is on, the ever-increasing interest and the games’ development.

WNT super fan Annie Mulholland is here with her family, the team’s lucky mascot from Gothenburg, and more and more travelling supporters should make themselves known over the next few hours.

There’s talk that a sizeable contingent from the local GAA club, Slovak Shamrocks, will head to the game too, with another big evening in store.

Another stop along the way as the journey continues.

Step by step, stop by stop.

About the author:

Emma Duffy  / reports from Bratislava.

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