Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Finland was one of the finest away performances ever by an Irish football team. It may also turn out to be a major turning point in the history of the women’s game here.
Pre-match odds of 4/7 for a Finnish win and 9/2 for an away victory reflected the magnitude of the task facing Ireland in this World Cup qualifying group game. Finland are fresh from qualifying for the European Championships by topping their group with seven wins and a draw from eight games, scoring 24 goals and conceding just two.
The visitors were buoyed up by a fine performance in a 1-0 home loss to world number two-ranked Sweden. But the gap between gallant defeat and significant victory is one Ireland have been unable to bridge in the past.
This time was different. Vera Pauw’s team took the game to the home side from the off to earn a deserved 1-0 half-time lead. They then caught an unlucky break when Finland equalised seven minutes after the interval with Ireland a player short as Katie McCabe received treatment.
That it took just four minutes to regain the lead summed up Ireland’s self-belief. This was going to be their night no matter what.
The victory gives Ireland a real shot at qualifying for the World Cup for the first time. Let’s not get carried away; Sweden will almost certainly win the group so Ireland’s target is probably a play-off place.
Yet beating the second seeds on their home turf means we’re favourites to hit that target and the quality of the display means Ireland won’t fear any opponent. The road to the 2023 finals in Australia and New Zealand is long but Ireland can travel it with some confidence.
There could have been no more fitting match-winner than Denise O’Sullivan. Few more whole-hearted players have worn the green jersey in any sport. The North Carolina Courage midfielder was doubtful beforehand after suffering a shoulder injury in the closing minutes against Sweden yet was in the thick of things all through.
O’Sullivan put Finland on the back foot from the start, powering into the opposition box in the fourth minute, having a volley blocked for a corner two minutes later and charging forward again to create the attack which led to the free-kick from which Megan Connolly gave Ireland the lead after 10 minutes.
The second goal was typical O’Sullivan. Seemingly second favourite to reach the ball when Finnish ’keeper Tinja-Riikka Korpela spilled a Heather Payne cross, sheer drive got her past the defender for the vital headed touch.
Making this tour de force all the more extraordinary is that the Cork woman was not just carrying an injury but has had to deal with a major scandal engulfing her club as Courage manager Paul Riley was sacked after accusations of sexual harassment. Denise O’Sullivan is a marvel.
Tuesday’s match also represented redemption for two players centrally involved in the fateful defeat by Ukraine, almost a year to the day previously. The freakish nature of that 1-0 loss in a match Ireland dominated made it the kind of setback which could haunt or even crush a team.
Who’d have thought McCabe, one of the finest strikers of a dead ball in Europe, would miss a penalty that evening? It must have rankled yet the Arsenal player has moved on and against Finland once more brought her world-class club form to the international stage.
Time and again McCabe intercepted passes and turned defence into attack down the left. One run ended with a blistering 20-yarder just wide of the post. McCabe appeared furious with herself for not hitting the target. It’s the kind of perfectionism which characterises great players.
The Ukraine winner in Kiev was a disaster for ’keeper Courtney Brosnan, caught flatfooted by a mis-hit interception. But superb performances against Sweden and Finland were a personal triumph not just for the Everton ’keeper but for Pauw, whose decision to keep faith with Brosnan had been questioned.
The manager’s decision to select Savannah McCarthy, playing in the league with Galway United, ahead of experienced North Carolina Courage defender Diane Caldwell was even more controversial. Yet McCarthy has been outstanding and had an absolute stormer in the first half against Finland.
Jamie Finn was just as surprising a choice when called up by Pauw while still at Shelbourne. But, now playing with Birmingham City in the Women’s Super League, the midfielder’s tigerish tackling has added an important new element to Ireland’s game.
Above all, Pauw has been vindicated for pitting her team against higher-ranked opposition in a series of friendlies. Four of those five matches ended in defeat but clearly brought the team on in leaps and bounds.
Scheduling so many matches against stronger opponents was a brave move for a manager coming off a failed qualification campaign. It was also a selfless one with Pauw privileging the needs of the team despite the risk of giving ammunition to her critics. She’s also had to deal with the controversy surrounding the exclusion of Tyler Toland. In the face of serious provocation, Pauw has behaved with great dignity and restraint.
The truth is that Ireland are lucky to have Vera Pauw. There was so much to admire on Tuesday. Like Megan Connolly’s beautifully struck free-kick for the first goal which, following Chiedozie Ogbene’s goal against Azerbaijan, makes her the second former Nemo Rangers player to score for Ireland this month.
Or the moment on the hour when Connolly and Niamh Fahey, a colossus at centre-back, threw themselves into last-ditch blocks to deny Finland an equaliser.
If that showed Ireland’s defensive resolve, the team’s considerable attacking flair was perfectly illustrated in the 89th minute. Gaining possession on the halfway line, Payne shrugged off the first challenge that came her way, beat one defender with a step-over on the wing and nutmegged another before almost setting up a third goal. Ireland might have been under severe pressure but they weren’t panicking.
Payne hails from South Roscommon, which might seem an unlikely place to produce a senior soccer international till you notice the team also contains players from Connemara, Wexford, Cavan, Wicklow, Donegal and Kerry as well as Dublin and Cork.
Such a geographical spread can only add to the growing reservoir of goodwill for a side poised to capture the imagination of the Irish sporting public. Tuesday felt like the start of something big.
There ain’t no stoppin’ them now. They’re on the move.
As the Super Bowl kicked off in February Patrick Mahomes’ reputation was at an all-time high for an NFL quarterback.
Having steered the Kansas City Chiefs to triumph against the San Francisco 49ers the previous year, he was expected to do likewise against the Tampa Buy Buccaneers, confirming that he’d brought the league’s glamour position to a new level.
Instead, the Buccaneers won 31-9 as Tom Brady showed that anointing anyone else as the league’s greatest ever player, even potentially, is a mug’s game. The aura of invincibility around Mahomes had been dented and the repercussions are obvious in a new season currently nearing the halfway point.
The Chiefs, who lost just six games in the previous two regular seasons combined, have lost four of their first seven. Mahomes’ form has slumped for the first time in his career. Having thrown just 11 interceptions in those two seasons, he’s already had nine passes picked off this term and lies a scarcely believable 15th in quarterback rating.
Player and team remain good enough to turn things round but right now last season’s pre-Super Bowl hype seems slightly ludicrous. Meanwhile, Brady and the Bucs have cruised to a 6-1 record. He’s not handing on the torch just yet.
The defeat of Proposal B at last weekend’s Special Congress means the GAA is saddled with a football championship that’s been rejected by a majority of counties and most of the players who’ll play in it.
Many fans will also be unimpressed by a continuing situation where teams plod through one-sided provincial competitions with largely predictable results.
The Ulster Championship is the exception which is why that province voted against the change. But what excuse is there for Galway and Mayo? Is hammering Sligo and Leitrim really that necessary for their self-esteem?
The defeat of Proposal B also reflects poorly on GAA president Larry McCarthy. Seán Kelly’s prominence at the Special Congress brought back memories of all the work he put in to secure agreement for the opening up of Croke Park to other sports in 2005.
It was in stark contrast with McCarthy’s half-hearted endorsement of Proposal B just a few days before the vote. Kelly wasn’t scared of putting his head above the parapet. That’s what leadership is. Delivering attention-seeking statements about the media being mean to players is trivial stuff by comparison.