"We're just taking it one game at a time…"
Can there be a more soporific, stultifying and soul-destroying nanny goat in all of football?
That’s from the perspective of us voracious meeja types, of course. When we stick a microphone under a player’s nose, what we want is some death or glory stuff, ideally something that can ramped up into screaming headlines of the ‘we’re all doomed’ or ‘nothing can stop us now’ kind.
Is that really too much to ask?
Yes, is the answer, if you happen to be on the other side of the mic.
Which is precisely where Katie McCabe found herself after that 1-0 victory over Greece in Tallaght on Thursday kept Irish hopes for what would a history-making qualification for Euro 2021 firmly on track.
For the record, the position in Group I is that hot favourites Germany are on four wins out of four, with Ireland, having played the same number of games, now just two points off the leaders and six clear of the Greeks.
However, Vera Pauw’s team have yet to play Germany home and away and also have an away date in Ukraine to come. And before all that they must take on Montenegro away on Wednesday. Qualification to join hosts England in the finals next year will go to all group winners as well as the three best runners-up, with the remaining six runners-up contesting play-offs in October to determine the final three berths in the tournament.
So there we were on Thursday night trying to find as many different ways as we could think of to get Katie to agree that, with Ireland unbeaten at the half-way stage, her team is well on course for, at a minimum, a place in those play-offs?
“We’ve still got four really massive games,” came the initial parry.
So we turned all Mrs Doyle on her. Say it, Katie, say it: g’wan, g’wan, g’wan…
“I’m not going to get too ahead of myself,” she insisted.
“I think it’s just important that we’ve put ourselves in a good position. And we’ve got ourselves in this position by focusing on the next game, so we’ll worry about Montenegro first and then the Germans when they come. It won’t mean anything if we don’t beat Montenegro.”
She’s right, of course, there being many a slip twixt cup and lip. On which point, one of the most encouraging aspects of Thursday’s win was that, unlike in the previous game in Athens when the visitors were sucker-punched by a stoppage time equaliser, Ireland this time kept a clean sheet, even if the narrowness of the victory on the scoreboard still left something to be desired in terms of the team’s ability to kill off games they have largely dominated.
“We’ve learnt from our mistakes, especially over there,” said McCabe. “We knew what we had to do to make sure of the win if we were only one up towards the end of the game. And the girls executed the plan great.”
Noteworthy too, was growing evidence that this Irish team now boasts enough strength in depth to be able to claim a big three points even in the absence of some key players, such as the Megans, Connolly and Campbell, the latter’s injury woes meaning the side is also having to do without the reliably potent set-piece weapon of her formidable long throw.
“Megan Campbell is out with injury but it’s great having that competition for places,” said the captain. “No-one is safe, it keeps everyone on top of their game and you have to be performing at the top level to be making the squad. The fact that we have that depth is fantastic for us in a big campaign like this.”
Making an impressive return to the side, Ruesha Littlejohn was voted Player of the Match on Thursday but, meaning no disrespect to her, there were more than a few of us looking on in the stadium who felt that, not for the first time, Denise O’Sullivan stole the show in what was a hugely influential midfield display.
“She played deeper in that position with Niamh Fahey, and Ruesha was in that ten position and I thought she did it fantastically,” said McCabe of the Cork native.
“She picked her moments to go forward and to stay, sitting in front of that back four. She was just picking up balls and being tidy for us.”
“Ruesha has been out of the team for the last three or four years and I’ve seen how hard she’s worked over the last number of weeks, months, years. Like, it’s been a long time for her. So to come in, get that start and to show to everybody that she deserves a place in the squad, I was delighted for her.”
Now it’s off to Montenegro for Wednesday’s game in Budva against a side Ireland have already beaten 2-0 in Dublin. But given that the Montenegrins have shipped no less than ten against Germany and four against Greece, the match should also present an opportunity for the visitors to improve in one key area that was deficient in the back to back games against the Greeks: converting chances into goals.
“We want the six points in these two games and we’re halfway there but we’ve a massive job to do over in Montenegro,” said McCabe. “They won’t make it easy for us, but we showed the other night the players we have: Ruesha coming back in and getting player of the match, Aine (O’Gorman) coming in, Denise playing that deeper role. We’ve so much creativity and hopefully we get a few goals over there.”
And, finally for now, a word from the skipper on manager Vera Pauw?
“She’s basically Irish now! With Vera, the experience she has had at playing level and obviously managerial level, she’s fantastic.
“She makes it clear what she wants from us and we go out and do the job. I’ve loved playing under her and leading the girls out. I don’t want to jinx it but I’m really optimistic about what the future holds for Irish women’s football.”
One game at a time, of course.