It’s been quite the introduction to senior international football for Amber Barrett, the Peamount United striker who only made her debut when coming off the bench last September in Ireland’s opening World Cup qualifier, a two-nil away win against Northern Ireland.
That was quickly followed by her first start, another two-nil win on the road, this time in Slovakia, and then came the big one in November, the 22-year-old from Milford in Donegal again getting to play her part as the Irish secured a celebrated scoreless draw away to European champions Holland.
Not surprisingly, that against-all-the-odds point has given manager Colin Bell’s team a huge shot of self-belief as they prepare for next week’s back to back home qualifiers against the Slovaks and the Dutch.
“Colin had been telling us since he came in that this team is good enough to cause an upset in the group and good enough to compete with the best and I think that result completely emphasised the point he made,” says Barrett. “I think it gave a wake-up call to girls who would have been listening to him, like, (affects tone of not really believing) ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, Colin’.
“But now they’re like, ‘do you know what, this man is actually talking a bit of sense here’.
“I think it made us realise as a group that we are well able to compete. A result like that, away against the European Champions, it was something not anybody outside of Ireland would have given us a hope to do. And maybe people in Ireland too. But we did it and hopefully we can go one better now in Tallaght.”
Although Barrett did have the odd chance on the break, it was essentially a resolute backs-to-the-wall performance by the Irish in Nijmegen which secured that hard-earned point. But does she think the girls in green can afford to be more adventurous at home to the star-studded Dutch? “To be honest, the most important thing for us in every single game we’ve played is a clean sheet,” she says. “And we will be focused on keeping a clean sheet in both games coming up. Obviously then we will want to go out and try to get the three points.
“At the same time, you can’t think that because you got a draw against the Netherlands in the Netherlands you can take the foot off the gas. That’s not the way it is. They are going to be coming for us, all guns blazing. We have to be ready to deal with that and I think we will be.”
Although the visit of the Dutch to Tallaght Stadium on Tuesday April 10 inevitably dominates the build-up to these World Cup qualifiers, the Irish camp is not about to lose sight of the fact that the Slovaks are up first at the same venue tomorrow week.
“Slovakia are actually under a new coach so that’s going to be a big change from the last time we played them,” Barrett points out. “All the girls know the task in hand, especially having two home games. We haven’t had one of those yet in the qualifiers and we know how important it is to establish home advantage.”
Barrett’s ascension to the top flight of the domestic and international game might be proving hugely rewarding but her success has involved a significant sacrifice: the unavoidable decision she made last year to give up her Gaelic football career with Donegal in order to concentrate on soccer. “I have played GAA since I was 15 and after six or seven years to step away from it was difficult,” she admits. “More so because it’s a Donegal team that I think is going to do well. They have a new coach in this year, Maxi Curran, who was part of Jim McGuinness’ backroom team in 2012 and 2014.
“It was something that I had to give a lot of thought to. The international manager went to see me playing for Peamount against Kilkenny last year and he spoke to me afterwards and said that he felt that I had a lot of potential. I then had to make a decision because, when you look around, not just in Ireland but abroad such as in the Netherlands, those girls are not playing two sports.
“They are solely fixated on what they have to do in the sport they are playing. It’s not that I did not have a choice but I knew myself what I had to do then.”
The ultimate vindication would come, of course, if Barrett could help her teammates make Irish senior women’s football history by qualifying for the World Cup finals in France in 2019. There might still be a long way to go before that dream can become reality but, after their unbeaten start to the campaign – and especially that momentous result in Holland – there’s a sense growing in the camp that this really could be their time.
“We showed in the Netherlands that we’re well capable of competing with the best,” Barrett says. “If the groundwork is there and if the team is set up correctly, like it will be, and the preparation is done and the players are fit, there’s no end to what we can do.”
Amber Barrett is an Ambassador for the Para Swimming Allianz European Championships which will take place in Dublin in August. See www.paralympics.ie
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