Megan Connolly. Ben Brady/INPHO
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'We were a different kind of team back then' - Ireland out to right the wrongs of Euros campaign

Megan Connolly looks ahead to the huge World Cup qualifier against Finland tomorrow night.

SUCH IS THEIR growing momentum, every game the Irish women’s national team play nowadays seems to be their biggest ever. 

Tomorrow’s qualifier against Finland has a legitimate claim for that title. It’s effectively a play-off for a World Cup play-off: if Ireland win, they’ll be guaranteed the group’s second spot and a spot in an arcane play-off system. Draw and they’ll have to go to Slovakia and match Finland’s result against Sweden to qualify. Lose, and they’ll need to beat Slovakia and hope the already-qualified Sweden do them a favour. 

This is the time to win, for Ireland – even under Vera Pauw – have done enough learning at this point. 

In a parallel scenario, Ireland absent-mindedly missed out on a play-off for this summer’s Euros in the previous campaign, as a missed penalty and a painful Aine O’Gorman own-goal consigned Ireland to a 1-0 loss to Ukraine in their penultimate group game. Ukraine advanced to the play-offs, where they were knocked out by a Northern Ireland team who went on to lose their three group games at the finals. 

“There wasn’t the same level of hype around it, but I think we were a different kind of team back then”, says midfielder Megan Connolly of that gut-punch against Ukraine. “You can the see the games we’ve played, the results we’ve had and the campaign we’ve had. From the inside, you can see the development we’ve had, the slow but good process we’ve had and the step-up we’ve had. And that’s why we are in this position for Thursday.

aine-ogorman-dejected-after-scoring-an-own-goal Aine O'Gorman reacts after her own goal. Aleksandar Djorovic / INPHO Aleksandar Djorovic / INPHO / INPHO

“Obviously players involved in that game know the hurt that comes after it, when you’re so close but just don’t do it. That will play a part [against Finland.] We know that feeling, everyone has has it in their career. But it’s important on Thursday that we don’t get too caught up in emotions, it’s just a game of football, 11 v 11, and prepare as best we can. “ 

It’s a game of football that sold out in 30 minutes and can guarantee a tournament play-off for only the second time in the team’s history. 

“There’s a lot of hype around it”, admits Connolly. “If we win, we qualify for play-offs, but for us, we don’t want to get caught up on that, we don’t want to get too caught up in the emotions, we just want to show up, prepare all week and give our best on Thursday.

Obviously Finland are playing for the same, they’re a point below us, they want to win. We just need to show up and do our best. It’s what you want to be a part of, isn’t it? It’s what we play for. It’s what we want to achieve as a nation. For us, as players in it, we need to just stay focused on the football and prepare the best we can for Thursday.” 

If the Ukraine experience serves as a warning, the previous meeting with Finland offers encouragement. Ireland won 2-1 in Helsinki against the odds, Connolly’s free-kick goal the platform from which Ireland secured a famous result. 

“Finland started well, it was one of those ones where we wanted to get our foot in the game and it was one of those ones you practice a lot and it just happens. But it is in the history books, it’s going to have no bearing on Thursday.” 

One factor that may have a bearing on Thursday is the fact that Connolly is one of 11 members of the Irish squad still in pre-season, with the Women’s Super League yet to kick off. 

“The faces are quite consistent in the squad, so everyone has the basis of what we are trying to do with the Irish team: how we play, what we’re trying to achieve.”, said Connolly when asked how that fact may affect the game.  “So you’re not starting from scratch when you come in, even though people are at different stages of their seasons. But we are used to it, we are used to having camps and campaigns in the off-season, in the middle of pre-season, in the middle of the season. We are professional footballers, this is what we train for, so I think everyone will be ready on Thursday to their best.” 

Thursday, Thursday, Thursday, Thursday – Connolly incanted it throughout the interview, for it’s the side’s sole focus for now. 

That focus can lope and wander into the realm of dreams if Ireland win and right the wrong of the last campaign. 

This article was originally published at 6.10am

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