Uefa Women’s Nations League: Northern Ireland v Republic of Ireland, Windsor Park, Tuesday, 6pm (Live on RTÉ Two)
Way back in March, Karen Duggan wrote in her first Irish Times column about a simple choice being presented to the Republic of Ireland. Aim for three scoreless draws at the World Cup in Australia or abandon the low block and properly utilise the attacking verve of Katie McCabe and Denise O’Sullivan.
Option A was largely employed throughout the World Cup. Last Friday night in Tallaght against Hungary, interim Irish manager Eileen Gleeson, aligned with her assistant coaches Emma Byrne and Colin Healy, fully embraced Option B.
McCabe and O’Sullivan started behind lone striker Kyra Carusa in a high-pressing, attack-minded formation that simply did not work. Midfield was clogged by bodies, which saw Tyler Toland squeezed off the ball as Ruesha Littlejohn continually gave possession away.
Gleeson stuck to the plan, refusing to abandon the 3-4-2-1 approach with Sinead Farrelly’s late arrival for Toland – Littlejohn had already made way for Jamie Finn – seeing McCabe revert to left wing-back.
Farrelly made the system click, her quick feet prompting Heather Payne’s cross for the game’s only goal. Granted, it was finished by Hungary captain Henrietta Csiszár, but Ireland remained on course for six wins from six in the Nations League.
A valuable lesson may or may not be processing. It will take months, maybe even years, for a possession-based approach to be embedded, as set-pieces remains Ireland’s best chance of scoring against a country ranked above them.
“We’re not the finished article,” said McCabe. “We’re off the back of a tournament. I know we’ve been winning games but it’s been a difficult campaign, two games every window is tough on the body. I’m proud of how everyone has come in, bringing youngsters in, keeping that balanced with experience and lots of clean sheets and qualification into League A.”
Of the youngsters, Toland and Izzy Atkinson increasingly look the part.
“We were brave in how we play, we don’t want to sit deep,” the skipper continued. “We’ve got real quality across the park. It’s exciting. I don’t think we are in a bad position at all. It’s going to be a really massive 2024 and we need to be prepared for the step-up in quality.”
The Hungarians read most attacks last Friday, which puts an emphasis on how Ireland intend to deny Northern Ireland a play-off for promotion to the top tier of European football.
Tanya Oxtoby’s squad are two points clear of a Hungarian outfit that is expected to beat Albania in Budapest. That means defeat or a draw would deny Northern Ireland second place in Group One.
“We are going to learn a lot about ourselves, because the Republic are by far the best team in this group,” said Oxtoby. “So we are going to get to know a little bit more about ourselves and the areas in which we need to continue to improve, but also where we have improved from the last game when we played them.”
The last time was in September and a historic first outing for women’s international football at the Aviva stadium when Ireland beat the neighbours 3-0. A previous visit of the Republic to Windsor Park has also gone down in history – in November 1993 when Alan McLoughlin’s equaliser sent Jack Charlton’s men to their second World Cup. Different times.
Regardless of the result, next year sees Ireland enter the rarefied atmosphere of elite European countries. It’s a standard that ruthlessly dispensed of Scotland and Wales with neither team registering a win from five outings.
“Perhaps we should lessen expectations to three competitive shifts in Australia,” wrote Duggan eight months ago. “Stay safe and secure, offering respectability for the next generation to piggyback off. But I believe we should aim higher.”
The current Irish management – which could be retained or cut loose next week – clearly agree. As do the players. Ireland proved over the past two years that they can cope against Sweden, Canada and Australia. Add Spain, Germany, France, the Netherlands and England to this mix and a coherent style must be fine-tuned, starting tonight.
“Five wins, four clean sheets, top of the group,” said McCabe while paying tribute to Gleeson’s brief tenure. “She has been fantastic, not just Eileen of course, but the team she has brought in around her. I think you can see that from how we are trying to play, from the start of the campaign until now, we are trying to implement the principles they have set.”
Ireland (possible): Brosnan (Everton); Hayes (Glasgow Celtic), Louise Quinn (Birmingham City), Connolly (Bristol City); Payne (Everton), O’Sullivan (North Carolina Courage), Toland (Blackburn Rovers), Farrelly (NJ/NY Gotham), Atkinson (West Ham United); McCabe (Arsenal); Carusa (San Diego Wave).