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Thursday 2 February 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Ryan Byrne/INPHO Vera Paw celebrating at the final whistle tonight.
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Ireland boss Pauw: 'We outbelieved. Celebrate, but don't party'
It was a famous night at Tallaght Stadium, as the Girls In Green secured a World Cup play-off spot.

VERA PAUW ENTERED the press conference with a cheer.

‘Woo!’ the Republic of Ireland manager exclaimed, the smile on her face saying it all.

The emotion did too.

“My mascara is everywhere,” she beamed.

Sum it all up; that final whistle, the sentiment, the World Cup dream more alive than ever with a play-off spot secured?

“I couldn’t believe it,” Pauw began after tonight’s famous 1-0 win over Finland at Tallaght Stadium. “I was watching the ref like, ‘C’mon ref, c’mon ref!’

“Every minute went so slow. From the 78th minute I think I watched the scoreboard five times a minute, at least. We were under pressure, they did not create many chances but every ball could fall because they were physically strong, they were pushing. 

“After we could make the change, and the players trusted the change, from that moment we could play an equal game. We were a bit lucky that we weren’t 1-0 down at that moment. 

“Denise [O'Sullivan] and Ruesha [Littlejohn] had to play behind one another, it was difficult because they had never done that. They didn’t really trust it, I think, but we showed [video] clips at half time that that was the solution.”

Lily Agg replaced Littlejohn just before the break, the Aston Villa midfielder departing due to a foot injury.

And the super sub’s 54th-minute header off a Megan Connolly free-kick was decisive in Finishing the job ahead of Ireland’s remaining Group A game away to Slovakia on Tuesday.

Half time was calm, Pauw assured. The players may have been slightly agitated, but everyone came together to find a fix and match how Finland’s midfield duo Ria Öling and Eveliina Summanen were playing.

 ”They were just talking to each other, how to organise it. We sat everybody down, we showed the clips and then it was clear. That was the only thing we had to do, and that is why we have somebody above who’s seeing it from the top and who can select the clips to show the players so that they know what they are doing.”

The aftermath of Agg’s goal? Not so composed. “I don’t think we kept calm! But if you go mad after a goal, the biggest danger is a few minutes after that goal. We worked so hard on that — stay in control, next task.

“It was easier for her than for Ruesha because we could instruct her and show her. ‘That number four [Öling] is yours.’ She saw it from the side. The way she came on was just unbelievable.

“She’s just in the squad a few months, she’s on the sheet without hesitation. She is so good in the timing of her runs, we completely trusted her. The way she’s grown, we don’t know where she goes [next] but she’s absolutely super.”

lily-agg-celebrates-scoring-their-first-goal-with-teammates Tom Maher / INPHO The celebrations after Agg's goal. Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

Just how big is this result for Irish women’s football? Historic, monumental, momentous; it’s all of those things.

“Well, we have a play-off spot, and we have still a game to go,” Pauw beamed. “I mean who would have said that… well, we were dreaming about it.

“It’s very, very special because in Slovakia, we thought, ‘It will not happen again’. Slovakia, that same stadium was my last game when I was coach for the Netherlands, with everything that happened around it. I’m so happy that we got the result that we don’t get that tension.

“But we are going there to win. The emotions are so big now, it will be really difficult to play the same kind of game, we were going to try it — that could maybe bring us closer. We will know tomorrow after all the results are in (what round of the play-offs we enter), then we’re going to calculate if that is the case: if we win, if we’ll have a better position, and then we’ll make our plan again.”

(The three best runners-up secure a bye to the second round of play-offs, the convoluted path explained here. See what happens in the other fixtures first, Pauw stressed. And then it’s all about Tuesday.)

“We said to each other, ‘We celebrate here but we don’t party in the hotel,’” the Dutch coach added

“The full group, including the ones that came on in the second half, are doing the running programme now. That’s a statement. Nobody had to say anything, we agreed it before the game and they’re just out there. We’ll be ready on Tuesday.”

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Pauw conceded that tonight’s outcome vindicated her decision to stay on after their Euros near miss.

“The hard work gets rewarded by this special group. They’re so special, you can see it. Of course, we’re not there yet, we’re growing and growing and growing. But without the team bond and teamwork that we have in this group — and the will to sacrifice everything, even their own health if necessary, you don’t see that everywhere.”

And there was also a word for the record crowd of 6,952 in Tallaght. This was advertised by the FAI as a sell-out, but it didn’t quite hit full-house territory.

vera-pauw-celebrates-with-fans-after-the-game Tom Maher / INPHO Pauw celebrates with fans after the game. Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

Pauw paid tribute to those in attendance, but added: “I saw a few seats empty so a few did not show up, which was a shame because there were so many other girls who wanted to come.

“But who would have thought this after the draw? We believed in it. We outbelieved.”

Speaking moments before, Finland interim manager Marko Saloranta was gracious in defeat though his disappointment was clear to see as the second-seeded Finns bow out of the race.

“In the first half we had those chances. We weren’t there in the right spaces to make the final pass or be more dangerous. I think Ireland defended extremely well in the last 30 minutes, especially in their own penalty area. They were very good. I’m extremely disappointed that we didn’t score.

“They are very good on set-pieces. Now they have that long throw-in, we knew that. We were better than we were one earlier games – the Euros and qualification. There were no surprises that they were so good. Still, we didn’t score, so it’s disapointment.

“I think Ireland have a good chance [in the play-offs].”

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