“We consider this a must-win game if we are to secure second place in the group,” is the succinct summation from manager Vera Pauw of what’s at stake for Ireland in this evening’s Euro 2021 qualifier against Greece in Tallaght (7.15pm).
With Germany hot favourites to top the group, a second-place finish for the girls in green would see them either qualify automatically or, failing that, secure a play-off place for the finals in England next year, something never before achieved by our senior women’s team.
The trio of Megan Connolly (shoulder), Jessica Ziu (groin) and Leanne Kiernan (knee) have been ruled out of the game but American-born Kyra Carusa is one of four uncapped players in contention after receiving international clearance last week.
Ireland remain unbeaten in this qualifying campaign but, last time out, dropped two points when they conceded a late Greek equaliser in Athens. This evening, nothing less than three points is the target for the home team and, in the quest for the vital goal or goals Ireland need, Pauw will be hoping that careful management of Rianna Jarrett means the striker can hit the ground running in Tallaght just as she did on her recent debut for Brighton when she scored twice in a 3-0 FA Cup win over Crystal Palace.
Having hyper-extended her knee in Wexford Youths’ FAI Cup final triumph against Peamount last November, the 25-year-old hadn’t played a game in four months before she kicked off her Seagulls career in sensational style last Tuesday week.
Jarrett had signed for the WSL club on deadline day in January, packing in her day job in a credit reference company call-centre in order to make the big move to professional football in England.
“For me, I just wake up every day and it’s a breath of fresh air not to have to sit at a desk for eight hours,” she says. “That’s the biggest difference — that and getting used to not only the level of training but more training throughout the week.
“Obviously the opportunity to play full-time was fantastic and it was something that I was looking to do. But I’m not a 17 or 18-year-old kid, I’m 26 this year (in July) and I’ve been through a lot to get to where I am today.” Indeed she has, not least three ACL injuries — two in one knee, one in the other — before she was 21.
“I suppose the third one was the hardest,” she reflects. “It was fine after the operation in May 2016. I got through June and July but around August I started to lose motivation. I was getting things done but not to the best of my ability. I was going through the motions.
“I was going into my final year of College and in October the FAI put me in contact with Dan Horan, who was the fitness coach with the senior Ireland men’s team. I had a meeting with Dan and he asked me what I wanted to get out of this. I was thinking at that time that I only wanted to go and have a kickabout on the street with my friends and two brothers. He was, ‘okay, we can get you to that’.
“About a week later, we had the same conversation — and I didn’t miss a training session or match with Wexford from then on. Even when I was injured, I still enjoyed being around the whole set-up. They were my friends. I spent a lot of time with them on and off the pitch. That didn’t change when I was injured.
“We spoke again later on and I said that I wanted to get playing for Wexford and hopefully international football too. That recovery was around 14 months in total. I got a viral infection around February or March but prolonging the return benefited me. I was stronger than I was, I was getting fitter but there was a still a lot to do. Mentally, I learned a lot about myself the third time around.
“I was 21 or 22 when it happened, that little bit older. That setback, not knowing whether I wanted to come back, helped me in my return when I eventually did get back.”
Jarrett scored her first goal for Ireland in the 3-2 victory over Ukraine in October and, having missed the 1-1 draw in Athens the following month, is now hoping she can help the team return to winning ways tonight, though whether she will last the whole 90 minutes remains to be seen.
“It was fantastic to get my first senior goal in an Ireland jersey but the three points was the most important thing that day,” she says. “As Ukraine are second seeds, that was a massive result to put us in a strong position. But that doesn’t mean we can take anything for granted. The job is not done yet. Now, against Greece, we’re looking to keep a clean sheet - and it doesn’t matter who scores the goals.”
The FAI say that 5,500 tickets already been distributed for the game, with Pauw expressing the hope that all in possession now show up on the night.
“We need the support of the fans and we want them to be loud,” she says, “because that gives the players a real boost during difficult moments.”