By Liam Mackey
Reflecting the growing interest in the exploits of the girls in green, there was a record attendance of 3,500 for a women’s home international in Tallaght last Friday, as Ireland beat Slovakia 2-1 in their qualifying game for the 2019 World Cup finals in France.
But to put that in perspective, there were over 30,000 in Eindhoven to see the Netherlands put seven past Northern Ireland on the same evening.
That’s just one measure of the gulf which ostensibly separates the two nations as they meet in Tallaght this evening, the Dutch team having captured the hearts of their own people with last year’s European Championship triumph on home soil.
Tonight’s visitors are pure box-office these days, their ranks including some of the biggest names in the women’s game. Barcelona’s Lieke Martins, the world player of the year, got two goals against the North last week, with the Lyon express Shanice van de Sanden and Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema also among those getting on the scoresheet, the latter registering her 50th goal in just 65 internationals.
All of which makes Ireland’s position in Group 3 going into tonight’s match even more remarkable: level on 10 points at the top of the table with the Dutch, having held their exalted opponents scoreless on a memorable night in the Netherlands last year and won their three other games in the campaign so far, away to Northern Ireland and home and away to Slovakia.
Amber Barrett’s late winner against the Slovaks in Tallaght last Friday was hugely significant in the context not just of tonight’s game but of the group as a whole.
As Ireland manager Colin Bell puts it: “The win was so important in this window because it keeps us in this tournament, no matter what happens against the Netherlands. That’s a fact.”
Bell describes the Dutch as “the best team in the world” and believes that, especially having been frustrated by the Irish on home soil last year, they are coming to Tallaght intent on doing to the Republic what they just did to the North.
“They don’t want to beat us, they want to put five, six, or seven past us,” he suggests.
“I honestly believe they can do that against every nation. They could have beaten England at the Euros by five or six. They let them off, basically, with just three. So if you give them space and time on set-pieces, get those kinds of things wrong and concede early or get tired, you can get hammered.
“Obviously we don’t want that. We want to stay in the game. We want people who come to the game to support us right to the very end because they feel that something might happen, there could be a sensation. I don’t just want them to think, ‘oh, they gave everything’. We want to try our best to upset them.”
Bell accepts that, as in Nijmegan last November, it could largely be a backs to the wall performance for the Irish tonight but he insists that, as was also the case in the Ntherlands, the opposition’s all-out attacking approach will allow the odd opportunity for the Irish to strike.
“I saw that the girls were capable of in the Netherlands and they have to repeat that of course and clean up on various things,” he says. “And going forward, we have to finish chances. We’re not going to get many chances, we’re going to get one, or two, or three, and we have to take them.”
The football world might be expecting to see the Irish engaged in a strictly damage-limitation exercise in Tallaght but Bell believes his team are capable of inflicting damage too.
“We need that threat, of players with speed, and that’s what Amber and Leanne (Kiernan) bring with them,” he says. “Plus Denise (O’Sullivan) and Katie (McCabe) when she gets moving. She’s more explosive and she can take players on.
“Quick feet, we need that. You can’t just be holding on for dear life — although there will be phases when we will have to do that — but we have to be able to hurt them to show we can do damage if we get the chance.”
Áine O’Gorman trained yesterday but a tooth abscess which has affected her preparation means she won’t be considered for selection on a night when the manager knows that nothing less than maximum input from every single player will be required if the Irish are to claim another valuable point against the Dutch — or perhaps achieve something even more momentous.
“We need players on the pitch who can give everything,” he says. “Every drop of energy they have got, they are going to have to leave it out there. It doesn’t matter how many minutes you play, you are going to have to leave everything on the pitch.”
In other team news for Ireland, Claire O’Riordan has joined O’Gorman on the sick list while Galway WFC winger Aislinn Meaney has been brought into the squad to replace Tyler Toland who is out with a fractured wrist.
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.