Our household’s resident young footballer found some rewarding consolation in defeat after the Irish women’s team lost 2-0 to the Netherlands in Tallaght last Tuesday night.
The additional practical benefit of being lucky enough to get Louise Quinn’s hairband after the final whistle is that it can actually be proudly worn (indeed, by the looks of things, will only be removed from our daughter’s head through a process of surgical intervention), in contrast to the equally prized possession of a pair of Emma Byrne’s gloves which, no less gratefully received after a qualifier during the last campaign, now reside in a frame on our 10-year-old’s bedroom wall.
To add to the ineffable post-match excitement in Tallaght, there were also high fives exchanged with Fifa world player of the year, Barcelona’s Lieke Martens, and striker supreme Vivianne Mediema of Arsenal, an unused sub on the night, before the Oranje superstars disappeared down the tunnel.
Win, lose or draw, it’s become a familiar ritual at the end of women’s internationals for the girls in green to make ample time pitch-side to engage with their devoted supporters, an always heartwarming reflection of the reality that whenever this team goes into action it is engaged in two battles: one to gain points, the other to win hearts and minds.
Ideally, the two go hand in hand, which was certainly the case over the first four games of their current World Cup campaign, three wins and a famous draw away to the Dutch not only putting the Irish joint top of the table before kick-off on Tuesday but ensuring a record attendance in Tallaght for a women’s game of just over 4,000, despite the weather proving distinctly uncooperative and the compelling rival attraction on the box of Man City v Liverpool in the Champions League.
But the willingness to smile for a selfie after the final whistle should not be mistaken for indifference to defeat inside the dressing room. It was striking that when a stern-faced Colin Bell came out to address the media, the manager’s first instinct was to accentuate the negatives of the night. No-one was trying to pretend that the European champions hadn’t thoroughly dominated the game — such a scenario had been widely predicted in advance — but Bell was still clearly furious with the defensive errors which had contributed to the two Dutch goals. Neither did he mince his words when stressing the need for some of the Irish girls, especially the home-based players, to improve their fitness levels if they are to hope to compete at the highest level.
That sense of having under-achieved, despite the ostensibly huge gulf in status between the two teams, was not disputed by Cork’s Denise O’Sullivan, Ireland’s best performer on the night.
“We felt very disappointed and that just goes to show that we’re holding ourselves to higher standards right now, especially with Colin coming in,” the North Carolina Courage player told me. “He has instilled this belief in us, this mindset, that we can beat any team and that’s what we went out to do against the Netherlands and, if not win, then at least get a point off them. So we were very disappointed at the end.”
But O’Sullivan also agreed with her manager on the significance of Ireland’s avoidance of a collapse after the concession of two first-half goals against a side which had slammed seven past Northern Ireland a few days earlier.
“It was important definitely to keep it to two,” she said. “We said at half-time that even if we’re not going to get back into the game, then at least we’re not going to lose in this half, we’re going to keep a clean sheet. That’s what we did in the second half and because it could come down to goal difference at the end of the group, that was very important. Losing on Tuesday was definitely not the end of our campaign and the two games coming up in June are probably going to decide whether we come second or not. The focus now is on going back to our clubs and making sure we come in fit to play one of the top teams in the world.”
With the Dutch, three points clear at the top, now looking clear favourites to scoop the one automatic qualifying berth for the finals in France next year, this summer’s back-to-back games between Ireland and the group’s other big guns, Norway, assume critical importance in the battle for second and, one hopes, one of the four best runners-up spots which would ensure entry to the play-offs.
Even getting to that point remains a daunting challenge for the Irish but one which, according to O’Sullivan, seems much more attainable now than it might have looked before the campaign began.
“Myself, I’m very confident and as a team we’re confident,” she said. “There’s a great group of players there and all the staff believe in us as well. We’re after getting a lot better in these last 12 months as a team. And I believe there’s more to come from us. We’ve a lot to learn as a team and we’ve got a lot of very young players. I thought Leanne Kiernan and Amber Barrett were fantastic the other night. Leanne ran her socks offs. And we had Amy (Boyle Carr), a 17-year-old, making her debut as well, a huge occasion for her.
“Obviously you look at the Dutch right now and they’re top class, hard to break down and if you lose concentration for a second, they break the lines and break you open. But we want to keep moving forward. We want to keep developing the young players and the more experienced ones can help to urge them on. So we can all learn from that game and I believe Colin is putting us in the right direction.”
Ireland’s bid for a first-ever tournament qualification would be greatly helped if, come June, Bell is able to call on the services of Stephanie Roche, Harriet Scott, and Tyler Toland, all of whom were out injured for the match against the Dutch. But it looks like Megan Campbell, she of the prodigious long throw which has been such a valuable attacking weapon for the team, is still in a race against time to be fit for the final qualifier against Northern Ireland in August.
Still, the important thing right now is that the girls in green remain in contention.
“It was disappointing but not a setback,” is how O’Sullivan sums up the impact of the loss to the Netherlands on Ireland’s historic World Cup ambitions.
“We’re still in a three-horse race with Norway and the Dutch. So we’ll go out in June, give it everything and hopefully get the points we need to keep us on track.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved