Sinead Kissane: Bell sounds for rise of Ireland women's team to new heights
The appointment of a new manager and re-introduction of extra training for home-based players prove key in our evolution as World Cup group contenders
Rihanna's song 'We Found Love' proved to be a uniquely apt soundtrack to the Republic of Ireland's draw with the Netherlands in Nijmegen on Tuesday night.
The lead single from the singer's album 'Talk That Talk' was on Ireland's playlist as they got ready for training on the eve of their FIFA Women's World Cup qualifier.
When they were back in the dressing-room the following night after they walked the walk against the European champions, boy, did the team belt out that anthem.
"We found love in a hopeless place. We found love in a hooo-peless place."
"I think we could have played a nursey rhyme and we would have had the same reaction. We were just so ecstatic with the result," Republic of Ireland international Karen Duggan laughs.
"We got a point in a place that people probably thought was hopeless for us. It turned out to be apt but (the song) wasn't planned."
Everything else seemed as planned and organised as it could have been. Sure, they were lucky not to concede a penalty near the end as they white-knuckled it at times but they still managed to solve a problem like the Netherlands.
The crux of the game-plan was formed 135 days previously at the Stadion Galgenwaard in Utrecht at the Netherlands' opening game of the UEFA Women's Euro 2017 Championship.
Manager Colin Bell was at all of their games and within minutes of seeing them play he knew what had to be done four months later.
"I studied Holland during the Euros. And the first time I saw them, after five minutes I just thought that when we play them we have to play with a back five to keep things tight because they try to exploit space in the wide areas or between the centre-backs and the full-backs," Bell says.
Like Jim McGuinness in his first year in charge of the Donegal senior Gaelic footballers, Bell has put emphasis on the pursuit of defensive stability.
The squeeze has been worth the juice; since March they have conceded just three goals (two against Korea DPR in the Cyprus Cup in March and one against Scotland in a friendly in July, while they have conceded no goals in this qualifying campaign to date.
After watching the Netherlands at the Euros, Bell put their patterns of play on a graphic for the players to study.
They worked on this new defensive system in sessions before their qualifiers with Northern Ireland and Slovakia and in their training camp, which was extended from eight to 10 days, before the Netherlands game.
Bell wanted the players to know what the Dutch were going to do before they did it.
"The girls had to see the spaces and think, 'how would we react to this situation?'. So that was in the theory and put into practice on the pitch. So they had the picture of what to expect before it happened," he said.
It wasn't just the Netherlands' threat but the weaknesses of the teams they beat that were dissected.
The Netherlands scored 13 goals in the Euros. Four days before the Republic of Ireland played them, they thrashed Slovakia 5-0 in Senec.
"We more so studied the teams that played against them and where they were getting exposed and we wanted to plug those gaps," Duggan says.
"And then we implemented it on the training ground. We were really disciplined all week".
The making of this Republic of Ireland squad can be retraced to key decisions.
First was the appointment of Bell, who previously worked with Jurgen Klopp, nine months ago.
He still has German names for his drills from his time managing FFC Frankfurt to the UEFA Women's Champions League title.
"I say to them when we're training that the responsibility for what we're doing is 95pc me and 5pc the players. But when the girls start to play then the roles change and it's 95pc the girls and 5pc the coach," Bell explains.
"I always try to reduce it down to roles and responsibilities. They all know exactly what they have to do and they also know the role of their colleague.
"I like to test the players, their intellect on the pitch. My training sessions are very intense. Of course, I'm a very emotional coach at times," Bell says.
"I think I can interact very well with players but I show them the line and they're not to step over this line. Without the discipline there is no chance of being successful.
"I always say to the players you can be an energiser or you can take energy away.
"I've got bags of energy and I want to give that out. I'm trying to create a mindset that is high performance but that's also a good harmony."
Bell tests the players' intellect by challenging their understanding of the game and putting them in situations in training which stress-tests their decision-making. He sometimes changes the shape and size of the pitch to give them a different perspective.
"I like a lot of small-sided games where they're having to make quick transitions from defence to attack and from attack to defend in a split second. So, they're making decisions permanently," Bell points out.
"Working on a lot of these kinds of things, cognitive exercises, where they're having to use their brain and it can be tiring. It's also about spaces, different zones and which zone you need to be in now".
There's not only an enlightenment in listening to this from one of our national football managers but also from someone in charge of one of our national women's teams.
In training for the Women's Rugby World Cup, former Ireland international Ruth O'Reilly said the Ireland rugby squad were led to concentrate more on their fitness and less on the technical aspects of the game in the line-out and scrum.
For the Republic of Ireland team, it seems to be about increasing their intelligence as footballers too.
"We don't go out and run laps of the pitch. The emphasis is always on the ball and improving our technical ability. It's also good for your brain," Duggan says.
"Colin is confident in himself and he gives us that confidence as well.
"We know we've never qualified for a major tournament before and he said that's not good enough for us and we've started to believe that."
Another important factor in the rise of this team has been the return of training sessions outside of international camps for the home-based players.
These were started during Sue Ronan's time as manager before they were finished with despite their value to players.
While issues like tracksuits and match fees grabbed the headlines last April, restarting these extra home-based sessions has been a vital gain from their new deal with the FAI.
"I think it galvanised us in a way that we all came together for something that we believed in. Getting the home-based sessions were a huge part of that," Duggan adds.
Ireland had four of these sessions before their main camp in the lead-up to the Netherlands game.
Bell was able to bring in around 20-25 players, including players from the elite U-19 and U-17 teams to these training sessions.
"If you're good enough, you're old enough as that human shield, also known as Tyler Toland (who only turned 16 in August!), proved with her immense display this week.
After starting with three away games and lying level on seven points as Group 3 leaders the Netherlands, the Republic of Ireland have a double-header of home World Cup qualifiers next April against Slovakia and the Netherlands with Aine O'Gorman and Stephanie Roche due back after missing Tuesday because of injury.
Part of their build-up for those two games will be a week-long camp in Portugal in January which will include two games against Portugal.
As well as building a reputation among their opponents, this team is also gaining traction with the public. eir Sport say they reached a combined audience of 75,000 through on-air coverage and two Facebook live streams for Tuesday night's game.
Around 150 loyal supporters travelled to the Netherlands to support them with many more expected to attend their games next April.
Maybe at home the team will also find love in a hopeful place.
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