Thus Spake Zarathustra rang out from the tannoy in Tallaght Stadium as Vera Pauw’s side entered the pitch on Saturday evening. An apt musical accompaniment for a team at the dawn of a new footballing odyssey, with Vera Pauw now fully committed to Ireland for the next World Cup qualifying campaign.
“We are getting closer, and closer, and closer,” she said after the Belgium game. Her sights are firmly set on the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in 2023 and establishing a side that can go and compete.
Coming off two friendly losses might not give much hope at first sight, but the two performances were hugely positive considering the level of opposition. Denmark were runners-up at the last European Championships and Ireland were competitive and would have got a draw had Katie McCabe’s thunderbolt been an inch lower. The tempo of the game was not that of a friendly, and Ireland put together intricate play in the second half and were not afraid to push high against the Danes.
The Belgium game is the one that Ireland really should have won. They conceded a sloppy goal and had a slew of chances go astray. Ireland will have gained much more confidence going into the next set of qualifiers knowing they can compete with teams ranked much higher than them. Individual mistakes by Ireland in both games cost them, but the performances as a whole were a great indication of where this team is heading – to the next World Cup.
The games were not only a chance for the established team to reconnect, but to experiment with players new to the group – Jamie Finn, Heather Payne, and Emily Whelan all looked comfortable against a team with world-class talent like Pernille Harder. Claire Walsh and Emma Molloy will also benefit from time in camp. Being involved with the likes of McCabe and Quinn who are at the top level and now set the standards within the team.
Heather Payne drew the eye with her boundless energy and ability to cover every area of the pitch, she caused havoc in both of the games against top defenders. Along with Jamie Finn who stood out playing against the elite level Danish midfield. The Shelbourne player relished the challenge “That’s what you wanna be up against”.
Emily Whelan also looks like a top prospect and if these players can get moves to the WSL in the coming years we could see the Ireland team develop into something special with the already established talent in the squad.
The defence looked very sharp against Denmark. Fahey, Quinn, and Caldwell are an elite level back three. Caldwell was impressive, having a standout performance against Denmark with two-goal clearances. Together they kept the world’s most expensive female player Pernille Harder relatively quiet, her game was much subdued as she had to come back deep to find space.
Fahey at one point pinched the ball off Harder á la Bobby Moore against Pele. Liverpool might be in the second division but Fahey showed her class. Harder is possibly the best player in the world in this position and she struggled to impact the game such was the organisation of the Ireland defence.
Pauw’s three at the back needs time to settle in and once it’s firmly established and the wingers are comfortable, they should be able to push higher into the channels and allow cutbacks and overlaps with the two wide strikers. Denise O’Sullivan is playing a Bruno Fernandes style ‘number 10’ role and will be able to cut open defences as we saw in the two games.
The goalkeeping situation will need to be resolved, Pauw was giving both Moloney and Brosnan a shot, but Ireland will need an established number one for the competitive fixtures. Moloney, despite her poor mistake against Denmark, looks the better keeper.
Ireland were exposed on the wings with cutbacks and will need to be hyper-aware of exposing the back three against the top tier nations but as McCabe said during the week –
We’ve got that defensive structure, but now it’s all about attacking and scoring goals
Since the tracksuit debacle embarrassed the FAI so publicly they have taken measures to improve the women’s game – the employment of a top manager like Pauw, the increase of funds for the league champions and the new live broadcasting of games. The women’s game is taking hold, it’s the fastest-growing sport in the country, and qualification for the World Cup could be a watershed moment. However, not everything is rosy in the garden where the association is considered.
“We still need to be doing more” Katie McCabe told RTÉ Soccer before the Belgium game.
The issue of equal pay is still on the agenda with the leadership group within the team set to speak to the new FAI CEO Jonathan Hill in the coming months. If this long overdue issue can be resolved it will be a huge step in the right direction for the embattled FAI.
One issue that wrangled over the two games is Katie McCabes’s best position, there seems to have been a lot of talk in camp about where she was best suited to but the player herself stood firm that she was best out wide. Against the Danes, Ireland looked very dangerous when McCabe slipped into the middle and was able to receive the ball more. Beforehand we saw Quinn and Fahy constantly playing diagonal balls over to McCabe and the pressure was immediately put on her by the Danes. This is why Pauw could want her more central as to not have those risky passes be intercepted.
In Pauw’s system, there is no central number nine and both strikers draw the centre-backs out wide. Against the lower-ranked teams, however, this tactic should bear fruit. The coming friendly against Andorra in the summer will be a perfect opportunity to show the attacking quality. Wherever she plays however McCabe will be central to Ireland’s qualification hopes.
In Vera Pauw, we have a potential Charlton figure, someone who has the enthusiasm and mentality to take us to the top level. This could be seen at full time in the Denmark game where she immediately gathered a huddle in. Pauw was enthused and wanted to let them know that they could compete with the best.
They’re so coachable
Pauw said referencing the changes she made at halftime in the Danish game “Immediately it was sorted”. She could be heard bellowing “Pressure them” on the sideline, the old adage of ‘Put em under pressure still’ has its place in Irish football. The inferiority complex of the team is one that Pauw seems intent on removing.
There are now 13 qualification spots in Europe, but it is still the most difficult continent to escape from. The teams being of such high quality, but the feeling in the camp will be that they now have the quality and organisation to compete with the top tier.
Pauw joked about avoiding Germany earlier in the week, but there is a hint of truth there. The draw on the 30th of April will dictate just how difficult this campaign could be. If the big three of Germany, The Netherlands and England can be avoided, there should be no reason why sights should not be set on automatic qualification. There are still top sides such as Italy, Spain, and of course France, but for the first time, the second spot should be well within our grasp.
The tournament is jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand, and what an amazing experience it would be with the Irish communities so strong in those countries. With the men’s team unlikely to qualify for Qatar, all focus should now reside on the women’s team who have much better prospects of qualifying.
The pressure is on for the girls in green, but only because they have the potential to get there. A new odyssey is here for this Ireland squad and a first World Cup appearance is within their grasp, with Pauw on board, they have every chance of taking it.