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'Whatever happens, we want to make the country proud' - Ireland dare to dream on defining night

It all comes down to this for Vera Pauw’s Ireland as they face formidable Germany in their last-ditch Euro 2022 qualifier.

Vera Pauw and her captain Katie McCabe.
Vera Pauw and her captain Katie McCabe.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Updated Dec 1st 2020, 12:31 PM

VERA PAUW HAS done this before.

“As a player we, my team, have beaten Germany. There are not many players who can say that,” the Ireland boss smiles, just over 24 hours out from the self-confessed biggest task of her colourful managerial career.

Tonight brings one of the biggest games in Irish women’s football history, all-conquering Germany the visitors to Tallaght Stadium [KO 5pm, live on RTÉ Two], as Ireland desperately bid to salvage a Euro 2022 play-off spot. Plain and simple: they need to win.

And Pauw has no shortage of experience of digging out big wins for so-called smaller teams.

“I have beaten USA twice in my career with the Netherlands when we were a very, very small team, ranked about 28th in the world ranking list. As a coach with Scotland, we almost beat Germany. It was very unfair that we didn’t.”

Ireland are currently ranked 31st, Germany second. While that means little to nothing in the grand scheme of things, you just have to look at the landscape of Group I to figure out the powerhouse that Germany is.

Or just listen to Pauw, who considers them the best team in the world as they play better football than champions USA.

“The difference is Germany has gotten better and better and more professional,” she warns with a nod back to those past experiences she mentioned.

“So you can’t compare Germany now with then. Then they had some weaknesses, now they have no weaknesses. That is the biggest difference. Every game is different.” And Ireland need their “best game ever”

The group winners boast a 100% record in this campaign, scoring 43 goals and conceding zero, while they beat Ireland’s second place rivals Ukraine 8-0 twice, who the Girls In Green were 3-2 winners over before going down 1-0 on that heartbreaking night in Kiev.

The dream may as well have came crashing down there and then, lines fluffed as Ireland spurned a golden chance to qualify for the play-offs. But football is football, and it wasn’t to be with the dream of reaching a first-ever major tournament still flickering away.

Should tonight go against them, as is widely expected, this will certainly be seen as a missed opportunity for a special group. There’s no doubt about that, but there’s 90 minutes of football to be played yet (and another in Kiev, where Ireland’s life will be made much easier should group minnows pull off a monumental, though highly unlikely, shock.)

Pauw won’t shy away from the fact that a massive opportunity may have been blown in the grand scheme of things, but hope is far from lost just yet with plenty of positivity coming from the camp over the past few days.

“We had this blow in Ukraine,” she concedes. “We had this feeling there of letting down the country because we know how important it is for little girls that we qualify.

“I hope that everybody remembers the way we played the game, how dominant we were against an opponent ranked higher than us and with much, much more experience than us at that level.

Source: FAI TV/YouTube

“It’s heartbreaking but that’s football. Whatever happens, we want to make the country proud. We want to have this momentum to promote the game for little girls, that they are proud of their heroes on the pitch. That they can feel anything is achievable.”

“But we do know that Germany is Germany,” she notes, “ranked second in the world, best playing football team. We also know that we can do everything that we have in our capacities, but that doesn’t mean it is going our way.

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“But we want to show that we give our all and that we can make the country proud in that, and that you feel the spirit and you feel the essence of these players, who are on the fringe of doing something special. If not now, we will do it in the next campaign.”

They’ll not look too far ahead just yet, whichever way the outcome goes in Tallaght tonight, but it’s important to look back at just how far this side have come in such a short space of time; even before the Vera Era.

Many players were blooded by Sue Ronan, before the prospect of this special group qualifying for a first major tournament came into focus under Colin Bell. After the historic events of April 2017 and the fight for fairness against the FAI, they certainly did their talking on the pitch.

It’s been referenced plenty over the past few days: how Ireland held European champions and eventual World Cup finalists, the Netherlands, to a shock 0-0 draw in Nijmegen that November. That, and a little more would certainly be welcome tonight. They dared to dream through that campaign, but their qualification bid ultimately fell agonisingly short with quarter-finalists Norway also qualifying from their group.

“Keep believing,” Katie McCabe, who took the captaincy aged just 21, said afterwards. “We’re in touching distance, we will be back.”

unnamed (10) Louise Quinn checking out schools' artwork in the tunnel area of Tallaght Stadium yesterday. Source: SPORTSFILE.

A feel-good factor ensued, and there was plenty of belief for the next campaign as the World Cup was watched from afar. They’d be there next time. The future certainly looked bright, with a huge leap forward made under Bell. 

Until, ironically, right in the middle of the tournament in France, he departed. Complete and utter disarray. The script was ripped up and torn to shreds, preparations severely hindered.

A 3-0 defeat to USA at the Rose Bowl followed shortly after with Tom O’Connor in interim charge — and it was he who oversaw Ireland’s opening Euro 2022 qualifier opener; an underwhelming 2-0 win over Montenegro.

The next day, Pauw took the reins and shortly after, oversaw a massive 3-2 win over Ukraine in front of a record crowd at Tallaght. Things couldn’t be better as the Vera Era kicked off in style, but the Girls In Green were soon brought back down to earth as Greece snatched a late draw in Athens — one which could prove even more costly come seven o’clock or so tonight.

Before the Covid-19 layoff, momentum grew with back-to-back wins over the Greeks and Montengro, while Germany were 3-0 winners in Essen on the restart. But there were certainly positives for Ireland; goals came from their own mistakes, they learned how to contain them and create chances, and they kept them scoreless in the second half.

No need to be reminded of Kiev again, with dim hope stuttering on to overwrite that disappointment tonight and defy the odds, to somehow, someway, keep the Euro dream alive.

It’s not always about the destination, but rather the journey. “If a result doesn’t come around, it’s not going to stop the progress of Irish women’s football, or this team,” as Louise Quinn said best. “It’ll show where the team has come from.”

One chapter certainly doesn’t make a book, and here’s hoping this rollercoaster one doesn’t end just yet for Vera Pauw and her Ireland side.

But right now, it’s all about tonight, and anything could happen.

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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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