Nations League – Division B
Republic of Ireland v Northern Ireland
Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 1pm – live RTÉ TWO
This being the first women’s football international at the Aviva stadium and the inaugural Nations League fixture, it is nothing short of an historic, ground-breaking occasion.
It is also a hugely important fixture in practical terms as Katie McCabe seeks to pick up where she left off in Brisbane last July. When last we saw the Irish skipper and Ballon d’Or nominee she was cajoling former coach Vera Pauw to stop standing still. “Freshen up!” McCabe demanded of Pauw, as the Nigeria contest lurched towards a scoreless draw and quiet elimination from the World Cup in Australia.
The great “what-if” from that tournament remains. What could have been achieved if Ireland adopted a more attacking approach? What-if they had swung from the hip by pushing Megan Connolly, McCabe and Denise O’Sullivan into forward-facing roles.
In their natural positions.
Pauw would say this group, at that moment in time, would have been punished for seeking victory over respectability at their first World Cup. The players disagree but mercifully that back and forth no longer matters.
The FAI sided with the player view as Pauw was cut loose by director of football Marc Canham, who turned to the coaching nous of Colin Healy and Emma Byrne. The latter is the most interesting appointment as Byrne, who holds a record 134 Irish caps, appears to be a more permanent appointment than interim manager Eileen Gleeson.
“She has been great, honestly,” said McCabe. “I have been so excited for her coming in, I think it is brilliant that Eileen has brought her in to be part of the team going forward. She has so much experience that when she talks you listen.
“She has been vocal on the pitch in terms of her coaching points, her level of detail in meetings. It has been really good. She has so much respect from the whole team, I am just delighted she is part of it now because I think it will really benefit her going forward.”
Byrne’s arrival as Ireland assistant coach is one of multiple subplots on this landmark day.
Priority number one is qualification for the 2025 European Championships in Switzerland, but, equally, Ireland are in desperate need of halting a string of poor results. They have not won a competitive game since beating Scotland 1-0 in October 2022. They have lost five games since and considering that a successful Nations League campaign offers a much safer passage to the Euros, to stumble here would bring up all the dirty laundry the FAI have had to wash in public since the summer.
As the highest ranked country in the second tier of this new Uefa competition, Ireland are expected to beat Northern Ireland, Hungary and Albania in the coming days and months. Particularly Northern Ireland, whose new manager Tanya Oxtoby declined to reveal how many of her squad are full professionals. The answer is seven. That does not include captain Melissa Callaghan.
“A lot of us are in a part-time environment,” Callaghan revealed. “When we finish with the Euros [in 2022] a lot of us had to go back to our full-time jobs. It was different for the Irish girls who went back to their professional clubs. Obviously I have not been involved in [a professional club] so I don’t know what the processes are.”
Despite the bigger picture the Aviva will have a celebratory feel even if the 1pm kickoff helps nobody. Ideally all 38,000 ticket holders will turn up. There is a history of them not bothering as thousands skipped recent internationals in Tallaght. Perhaps this venue is more attractive.
“I can’t describe my love for Irish football, it’s in your soul,” said Gleeson. “I can’t think of a bigger honour than to be involved in this moment. We really want to connect with the fans and give them a good experience. It’s the biggest moment so far.”
Not quite as big as squaring up to the Matildas in Syndey’s Olympic Stadium but just as special as this stadium might some day become Ireland’s permanent home. But only if they start winning again.
Republic of Ireland (possible): Brosnan (Everton); Caldwell (FC Zurich), Quinn (Birmingham), McCarthy (Shamrock Rovers); Payne (Everton), O’Sullivan (North Carolina Courage), Toland (Blackburn), Connolly (Bristol City), McCabe (Arsenal); Larkin (Glasgow City), Carausa (San Diego Wave).
Northern Ireland (possible): Turner; McKenna, McFadden, Holloway, Vance; Callaghan, Furness, Caldwell; Hamilton, McGill, Wade.