The hardest part of Saturday for Katie McCabe was probably deciding which of the young girls holding up signs looking for her shirt during the post-match lap of honour was the most deserving.
In the end, she opted for decorum, keeping the shirt on her back and presenting her boots to a girl behind the South Stand goal.
The security man between her and the recipient, tasked with passing the footwear over, was surrounded by what looked like the front row of a One Direction concert, all of them hell-bent on getting their hands on those boots. He was lucky he wasn’t mangled.
Katie McCabe is a superstar. Yes, we knew this already, after all she’s just become the first Irish woman to be nominated for the Ballon d’Or, so there’s that.
But the cacophonous roar that greeted her name when the starting XI was called out over the Aviva Stadium speakers was testament to just how much of a star she has become for these young ones.
Any notion that zipped lip emojis and the like would lessen the love ... nah.
If you’d employed a cheer-o-metre, McCabe’s reception was followed closely by the ones received by Amber Barrett and Abbie Larkin. The adulation for Barrett is understandable (hint: Hampden Park 11 months ago), the frenzy for Larkin more revealing.
She’s just 18, so that is, no doubt, a factor in the relatable sense, and she has a personality that is as bubbly as it is endearing, but it’s an indication of the impact of the World Cup where she truly announced herself. When she came on for the last half-hour on Saturday, the roof would have ended up in Ballybunion if there had been a roof. The young ones have taken to this young one.
It was a gorgeous occasion. We can all get a bit too fluffy about these “firsts”, it seems like we’re forever talking about landmarks and off-the-field fuss and fluster instead of what this team actually achieve on it.
But this was special. Ambling back in to town, there were gaggles of girls with their Mas and Das, a bunch of them with McCabe, O’Sullivan, Barrett, Brosnan and Larkin on the back of their Irish shirts, high on the experience of being part of that 35,944 crowd.
And best of all, the buses from every corner of the country lined up in the surrounding roads. Cork, Galway, Tipperary, Sligo, Limerick, and so on. Those midweek late evening kick-offs in Tallaght make it impossible for this constituency to attend games, a 1.0 start on a Saturday way more doable. There’s a world outside Dublin, let this be a reminder.
For the members of the 1973 Republic of Ireland team in attendance on Saturday, the sight of the 2023 side taking to the pitch in front of a crowd of that magnitude will have been quite something.
It is [a day that] will stay with us for the rest of our lives— Eileen Gleeson
Fifty years since Ireland’s first official international, against Wales at the somewhat less salubrious surroundings of Stebonheath Park in Llanelli, this was some indication of how far the national team has travelled in the intervening years.
And they responded to the occasion, after a nervy enough start, Kyra Carusa scoring the second in a 3-0 win. Afterwards? Buzzing. “It was like we were back in Australia at the World Cup,” she said.
“And having played in the World Cup, and now playing at the Aviva, you’re exposed to something crazy, the amount of people, the fans, the preparation, the professionalism. And then coming out, there was just a sea of green everywhere, it was so exciting. Women’s football is exciting right now.”
While she made no small impression at the World Cup, Carusa’s task was a thankless one at times, so often was she left isolated up front. Against Northern Ireland it was different, she had Lucy Quinn alongside her with Denise O’Sullivan just behind, and wing-backs McCabe and Heather Payne venturing forward at every opportunity.
“It’s nice to have someone to play off,” she said, “and what a game for Lucy. Yeah, it’s nice to have two up top to support one another but also to support the rest of the team and give us more opportunities to play the ball higher up the pitch.”
Against higher ranked opposition, it’s unlikely they’ll be as bold, but you could see the enjoyment the players took from playing with more adventure. Megan Connolly returning to her midfield role, having been shifted to defence by Pauw, worked well too, as did O’Sullivan and McCabe being given more freedom to roam.
The steeliest performance of the night probably came from Tyler Toland in the mixed zone after the game, her determination not to talk about the past as resolute as the display that earned her the player of the match award.
She’s been through the mill these last four years, at a loss to understand the actual reasons for her exile by Pauw, but she’s back and now that she’s getting regular football with Blackburn Rovers is likely to be a big player for Ireland for a few years yet. She is, after all, just twenty-two.
On to Budapest they go for their second Nations League game after a memorable opening to their campaign. As interim manager Eileen Gleeson put it after, “It will stay with us for the rest of our lives.”