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‘It’s something we can really build on’ – How mentality and tactical nous are making the Girls in Green stronger

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Republic of Ireland's Katie McCabe celebrates after her side's victory in the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 qualifying group A match against Finland at Helsinki Olympic Stadium. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Republic of Ireland's Katie McCabe celebrates after her side's victory in the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 qualifying group A match against Finland at Helsinki Olympic Stadium. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Republic of Ireland's Katie McCabe celebrates after her side's victory in the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 qualifying group A match against Finland at Helsinki Olympic Stadium. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

They know the drill by now, a process forged in harsher times, tempered by multiple self-inflicted wounds to make them all stronger just when it appeared they were only getting weaker.

Louise Quinn will normally bark the instruction to her captain. Then Katie McCabe is off. And when Katie leads, everyone else follows.

Hold the line or break it. Seize space or squeeze it. Though an individual voice or step may spark a deed, the action automatically subsumes all 11 players as one.

And though you can see it happening on the field in front of you, it has already happened many, many times away from public view.

“It’s something we work out on the training pitch,” explains McCabe.

“It’s something we can really build on. Remaining compact in defence and then we do jump, we’re ultimately on the attack and we can have a few extra bodies forward.

“It is the connection between the players and us because every decision we make, we do,” illustrates coach Vera Pauw.

It may sound prescriptive, but it is the exact opposite; by establishing basic principles, consistent, coherent responses can allow the individuals to comfortably flourish in a safe system.

And nobody can gleam quite like the Arsenal star who is at the top of her formidable game of late, both with her resurgent club and country.

“Ah, it worked well at times. In the second half, I should have had a few shots on target, which I was kicking myself for, one on target and two off,” she smiles.

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This field is required

“It’s about choosing the right moments to jump because, obviously, you can’t make the jump if you’re not set. So it’s obviously Louise giving the call to me so I can release and use my strengths.

“Obviously, I do that with my club as well, so Vera tries to implement that here too.”

It cannot be underestimated what it is like for a team to marshal itself so that, with or without a ball, each player feels confident that they know what their next move might be.

Designing options instead of being startled by them, acting, not reacting.

Ireland’s senior women are now demonstrably a team, a sum total rather than random figures.

Not the finished article at all; there remain too many flaws and rough edges to swallow such an assumption, as even they gracefully acknowledge.

But it seems one can tentatively assume there is no longer in place the ragged collective who imploded under the gentlest of mental and physical pressures in the last campaign.

To get to this place required the fortitude of exposure to the harshest terrain of their sport, what at times seemed to the outsider a dubious exercise in self-flagellation as they suffered suffocation beneath the worst set of results in the sport’s 48-year existence.

But all the while, as many pondered the dark history of it all, the few were myopically focused on a brighter future.

It leaves them in the glowing present now, absorbing the presence of perhaps finally knowing who they truly are as a team, without either the fear of familiar failure or unknown challenges, for they have now conquered both.

“It’s not been easy at all,” agrees McCabe of the series of searing examinations against Iceland, Belgium and Denmark, which seemed to present only dead ends but actually plotted a path to a novel, different place of expression.

“We’ve really tested ourselves against fantastic opposition, some world-class players and teams. But it has got us to a position where we’re comfortable with being uncomfortable without the ball.

“We’re in control. We might not necessarily always have the ball, but we’re in control of what we do and how we dictate where the other team wants to go.”

Sweden, the second-best side in the world, discovered this even in victory last week when they were predominantly shoe-horned into an over-populated middle third.

On Tuesday in Helsinki, the host’s boss Anna Signeul lamented how Ireland were tactically smarter. This time, Ireland bequeathed them some liberty on the flanks, content they could command the aerial battle.

“That has been something we’ve been working on,” continues McCabe about this flexible approach on and off the ball. “And playing against the tough opposition is how we needed to test ourselves. Because we want to be climbing up those rankings, ultimately testing ourselves against those teams will only make us better.”

Systemic errors – Niamh Fahey becoming isolated against Sweden leading to their winner, Lucy Quinn failing to counter the numbers in the absence of the temporarily sidelined McCabe on Tuesday night before the equaliser – continue to undermine progress elsewhere.

The resilient response mechanism is different, though; as against Australia, Ireland responded stirringly and instantly, scoring the winner against Finland within four minutes, spurred by Áine O’Gorman’s turnover on the ‘jump’; a tackle all at once defensive and offensive given where she was on the field.

Across the flank, McCabe restrained herself and allowed the tireless Denise O’Sullivan to gallop on. Deployed mostly in front of her captain on the night to emphasise her mobility, as Jamie Finn and Megan Connolly usually sat deep, O’Sullivan naturally found herself on the far post to bundle home Heather Payne’s cross.

The leveller hadn’t levelled them. “We don’t stop and turn over,” says McCabe of the refreshed mentality. “That’s down to character.”

Thus, sensing each moment on its merits, this was a time to attack, so they seized upon it with relish.

And when they defended, as they did mightily for chunks of the final quarter, they sought to dictate those terms too. Still, as injury-time arrived, they had the game’s final shot on target, too.

“Obviously against Sweden, we had to remain behind the ball a lot of the time because we knew they had world-class players in their team,” says McCabe.

“So you could say the shackles were off in that sense. I was able to read the game as it was coming around, push on forward and then take the channel. And obviously, then, we all work off that.”

The ‘jump girls’ are keen to remain grounded, though.

Though they rightly sucked in the taste of sweet success, the substance of this win can only be franked by two more next month against Slovakia and Georgia.

“Yeah, it’s the message I try to get across to the players, you know? It’s not in our nature,” McCabe adds.

“This is the start of that belief we’re trying to instil within this team.”

“It gives us confidence going into those two games next month, but we need to remain humble with that. We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves . . . or think we’ve qualified.

“To be a decent nation, we need to remain with our feet on the ground.”

It may have taken a while, but it feels now that the ground beneath them now seems a whole lot steadier.


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