One game at a time — if ever the old mantra applied, it’s to the tantalising situation the Irish women’s team find themselves in as they prepare for back-to-back World Cup qualifiers in Tallaght.
Next Tuesday’s clash with European champions the Netherlands might be the box-office attention-grabber but, first, there’s this afternoon’s meeting with Group 3’s basement side Slovakia to be negotiated.
Anything less than three points would have to be regarded as a blow, especially since the Irish have already beaten the Slovaks 2-0 away in the second game of a campaign which has also seen them beat Northern Ireland away and, in a result which sent shock waves through Europe, hold the star-studded Dutch scoreless in Nijmegan in November.
That hugely impressive start — two wins, a draw and three clean sheets, all away from home — sees the girls in green level on points with the Netherlands at the top of the table and, even this early in a daunting campaign, has raised hopes that they are on course to make history by qualifying for the finals in France next year.
But with her eyes firmly on the most immediate prize, Denise O’Sullivan, who scored one of Ireland’s goals in Slovakia, warns today’s opponents are stronger than their position at the foot of the table suggests.
“Looking at the group, people might think we’ll have no problem beating them but on a good day (for them) they could beat us and on a good day for us we could beat them,” says the Cork-born 24-year-old.
We're ready. #IRLWNT🇮🇪 are home. Tomorrow, 5pm. 😀😀😀April 5, 2018
“They’re a very good team. A new coach came in after we beat them so I’m sure they’re after changing a few things. They also have Dominika Skorvankova of Bayern Munich. She’s a key player for them so we’ll have to keep an eye on her. And not only her, they have very good, quick full-backs as well.
“But I do think it is a must-win game for us. Holland is going to be a very tough game and we still have to play Norway home and away so definitely we want to get three points in this game.”
Encouragingly for Ireland, O’Sullivan — an attacking midfielder with an eye for goal — comes into the match in fine fettle, her career in the US firmly back on track after she left Houston Dash for North Carolina Courage.
It was her own call to look for the move after game-time dried up at Houston with the appointment of a new coach.
And the international dimension, she explains, was central to her decision.
“It was one of the main factors in me leaving. When you’re coming into the Irish camp to play against some of the best players in the game, you’re not going to get away with sitting on the bench and playing seven minutes of a game for your club and just training throughout the week.
“I noticed it when I was still with Houston and wasn’t getting any games and I came in for a game against Scotland. I just didn’t feel myself at all. I wasn’t confident, my concentration was affected. I wasn’t really in the game and that’s when I decided I had to do something so I went back and spoke to the coach.
“In the States, it’s called a ‘waive list’ when you’re released. You get waived by the club, your name goes out in the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) and a team can pick you up within 24 hours.
“I was away in Chicago for a few days and I got a phone call off the North Carolina manager, saying ‘we’re very interested in you, we’ve seen you play against us and we need you here’. Straight away, I was thinking, ‘I’m in America and I want to stay in America’ so it was a no-brainer. I ended up basically at one of the best clubs in the league.
“It was the best decision I’ve ever made. The coach, Paul Riley, is English and a great coach. He is very smart, very intelligent, understands all his players and puts on a great session. All the girls are professionals and it’s a great environment so I couldn’t be happier.”
Home is Cary in North Carolina and while that might be a long way from her native place of Knocknaheeny, O’Sullivan stays up to date with happenings on the Leeside football scene.
“I keep tabs on the Cork City women’s team because I played for them and know almost all the players and the coaches,” she says. “They helped me to get to where I am so I was delighted to see the great year they had last year, with the women and the men both winning the cup on the same day.”
O’Sullivan has already packed a lot into her own career, including Champions League football, over 60 senior caps and an appearance at the U17 World Cup finals in 2010 when she scored a goal against Japan as Ireland reached the quarter-finals.
But a place on the greatest stage with the senior team remains the biggest dream of all.
“Absolutely it is. Being at the U17s was a great achievement at the time and an amazing experience at that age but my goal always has been to get to a senior World Cup. Now we have an opportunity to do that.
"Although we’ve had a great start, we have a very long journey to go and a lot of tough games to come but they’re the challenges we relish as players. I’m crossing my fingers that the dream does come true this time.”
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