LIAM MACKEY: Ireland women park their disappointment to win friends and fans

To Tallaght Stadium last Tuesday for the women’s international between Ireland and Portugal, with a lot riding on the night. On and off the pitch.

Not so much for the home side, unfortunately, since qualification for the 2017 Euro finals was already beyond their reach. For the Portuguese, by contrast, victory in this last game of the campaign would still give them a chance of a shot at the play-offs and a place in the finals in the Netherlands next year.

Not that the match was without meaning for the hosts, of course. No opportunity to don the green shirt ever is or ever can be and, on Tuesday, there were the additional incentives for Ireland of seeking a victory which would not only enhance their seeding for the 2019 World Cup but would also represent a notable double over Portugal, Sue Ronan’s team having already beaten them 2-1 away.

And on Tuesday the Irish almost got off to the perfect start when, after just two minutes, Aine O’Gorman’s looping header from a Julie Ann-Russell cross came thumping back off the crossbar. But that, sadly, was about as good as it got for the girls in green who, while always in the game, had to rely for much of the evening on good organisation, lung-bursting effort and superb defending to keep the fast and fluent Portuguese at bay. And when the Irish did threaten again on a couple of occasions, visiting ‘keeper Morais was quick off her line to snuff out the danger.

Twelve minutes from the end, she seemed to have been outdone by her opposite number, Irish goalkeeping legend Emma Byrne diving to her right to keep out a Claudio Nento penalty, only to then suffer the agony of seeing the taker react quickest to the rebound to nod home what would prove to be the match-winner. What the breakthrough goal meant to the Portuguese was clear as their entire bench joined in the celebrations. And while it was tough on Byrne and her teammates, it was probably only fitting that the wonderfully gifted Nento, by some distance the best player on the pitch, got to decide the result.

With the news in that group winners Spain had walloped Finland 5-0, the final whistle meant even more reason to celebrate for the delirious Portuguese who now go on to play Romania in a play-off for a place in the finals.

While their opponents danced and sang in their half of the pitch, the Irish players and staff gathered in a huddle in theirs, private words in a public place marking the end of another campaign.

Then came the bonus which made it a memorable night for some of the youngest fans in attendance.

I mentioned at the start of this column that the stakes were high off the pitch – and, forgive the personal angle, but here’s why.

On Tuesday, we were accompanied to Tallaght Stadium by an excited little posse - my eight-year-old daughter and two of her classmates. All three girls play for local clubs and all three were keenly looking forward to attending a women’s international for the first time.

Me, I was slightly anxious. The first ever football match to which we brought Laila turned out to be rather spectacular: Ireland against Germany in the Aviva last year, the night when Shane Long nearly burst the net and a full house went mad with joy.

Now, that’s a tough act to follow.

And, to be truthful, the prospect of an end of campaign game in a half-empty Tallaght Stadium, with the Irish women having little more than pride to play for, didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that the spectacle would do a whole lot to engage and inspire the minds of a trio of young footballers who are at an age where life’s unlevel playing pitch raises plenty of questions and they can still be in need of reassurance that anything the boys can do, the girls can do too. (And, whisper it, sometimes better).

Well, oh me of little faith. Sure, the stand on the far side was deserted but, in the middle of the small but noisy and youthful crowd on our side of the ground, there was no shortage of passionate big match atmosphere, every Irish attack producing an ear-piercing chorus of high-pitched squeals. (And that was just me).

And after the final whistle, disappointment soon gave way to something approaching awe for all the young supporters present, as the Irish players parked their dejection and fatigue to come over to the perimeter wall in front of the stand and spend a generously long time dispensing high fives, hugs, selfies and signatures.

Not to mention Emma Byrne’s gloves. Two of our trio ended up with one each after Ireland’s most capped player threw her gloves into the crowd, while for the pal who missed out there was the not inconsiderable consolation of a group selfie with Louise Quinn to cherish, the defender even taking the trouble of holding the camera to ensure everybody got in the shot.

Call it glove at first sight if you must (and I must) but from the excitable chatter in the car all the way home to the spring in the step going into school the next day and on into football training in the evening, there was no escaping the enthusiasm generated by one memorable night of football in Tallaght.

Despite their best efforts, the Irish team may not have won on the pitch but, thanks also to their best efforts, they definitely won off it.


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