England may have their Lionesses but we’re happy to declare Ireland’s women as our Tigers.
Throughout Ireland’s 2-1 win in Helsinki, acts of bravery, courage, and collegiality were shared among the players, most pertinently four minutes from the finish.
A crowd of almost 6,000 had descended on the Olympic Stadium for the first game at the national arena for eight years, expecting moments like the one falling to Linda Sallstrom late on.
A routine finish from Finland’s main striker would only have salvaged a draw but the significance was broader insofar as the country’s record was on the brink of her 50th international goal.
Gasps were audible across the epic stadium’s two occupied stands when she rose to flick her header goalbound.
Time wasn’t the only thing that stood still in that incident as goalkeeper Courtney Brosnan had left her goal unguarded, yet Niamh Fahey was there to deny the Finns a point with a block on the line.
“It would have been a definite goal but Niamh threw herself at the ball,” said Vera Pauw afterwards about the pivotal moment.
“Our tigers never ever give up. That has become our mantra, there for all the players to see on the last slide of our pre-match presentation. We never collapse or give up and must stay in control no matter what happens on the pitch.”
Taking points from the second seeds will be essential for Ireland to aspire for the playoff spot behind roaring favourites Sweden.
A point would have sufficed in the grand scheme of an eight-match campaign, given Ireland host the Finns in their penultimate qualifier next September.
They went better than that, twice taking the lead and deservedly seeing out of the game despite Anna Signeul’s insistence that the Finns fashioned enough chances to have won it themselves.
Although Adelina Engman cancelled out Connolly’s 10th-minute opener early in the second half, Denise O’Sullivan pounced to nick the winner on 57 minutes for the three points.
Up next for Ireland are two home matches next month against lower seeds Slovakia and Georgia, bringing them to the midway stage of the campaign.
Pauw’s persistence with the back-three structure offered space for Áine O’Gorman and McCabe to assist the attack and they got forward in the early exchanges, signalling Ireland’s intent.
“We were in their half for the first 15 minutes, almost outplaying them,” observed the Dutchwoman.
That bright opening formed the bedrock for Ireland’s opener.
O’Gorman had seen her shot blocked and Louise Quinn was marginally too late to connect with a corner but Heather Payne’s ferocious shot which struck Ria Öling’s arm earned a free-kick on the edge of the box.
Standing over the ball were Katie McCabe, Lucy Quinn and Connolly — all free-kick specialists in their own right — but the position suited a right-footer and up stepped the latter.
“Katie can take free-kicks with her eyes closed but from that angle we just felt it would suit a right-footer,” explained Connolly.
“Once the keeper and wall were set, I had the belief in that moment to say: ‘I’ll take it’. Lucy scored from one like that against Australia but I didn’t give her the chance to take this one.”
Rather than fire through the gap in the wall, the Brighton midfielder curled her shot over it, striking the underside of the crossbar and flying in off Tinja-Riikka Korpela’s desperate attempted punch.
That quietened the strong home support and they had little to be excited about as Ireland held firm.
The first hint of the hosts’ threat, though, materialised on 16 minutes when Connolly switched off from a throw-in to allow Engman drift into space but her 20-yard shot was wayward.
Connolly got back on-message defensively by deflecting Natalia Kuikka’s shot over while Sällström was unusually profligate when directing a free header wide on 27 minutes.
A barrage of Finland corners were floated in to test Brosnan but only Kuikka came close by nodding inside the six-yard box.
Up the other end, McCabe’s cross was met by Jamie Finn, who couldn’t generate the power on her header to trouble Korpela.
Ireland’s only major concern in that first-half was a knock O’Sullivan shipped on her knee but it was just as well she recovered to play on.
It was during another spell of medical treatment being applied to McCabe that Finland equalised. Engman had been putting her foot in on quite a lot of players and one such late challenge left the Ireland captain in agony.
She was off the pitch when her unmanned area was exploited — Tuija Hyyrynen dashing down the flank to cross for Engman to meet with a side-footed volley through the grasp of Brosnan.
The game could have swung further away from Ireland within moments had Emmi Alanen been alert to meet a right-wing delivery but a mere five minutes elapsed before they regained the lead.
A flowing move started by O’Gorman saw Finn and Heather Payne combine down the right with the US-based attacker getting to the end-line and clipping in a cross.
Korpela could only fumble the delivery and dashing in to head the ball over the line in front of Hyyrynen was O’Sullivan.
McCabe flashed a late shot wide on the run with 20 minutes left as Ireland sensed a third goal but Fahey’s intervention put the seal on one of the most famous nights in four decades of the Ireland women’s team.