It’s been a year unlike any other for football in Ireland. Who would have thought just a year or two ago that the most recognisable faces of Irish football would be women?
When you sit in to a taxi, go to the pub or have a kickaround with the lads, most of them are discussing Katie McCabe and Co. Who would have thought after the infamous strike that the Republic of Ireland women’s national team would have parts of the country grinding to a halt at 11am during a World Cup run? And, more importantly, who would have thought conversations surrounding the women’s team wouldn’t be based on “sure aren’t they great?” but instead on tactics, team selection, manager ousting and player power.
Yes, this all happened in the space of four or five months.
The national team has captured the nation’s imagination more than any other women’s team in this country. Yes, the hockey team did similar during their fantastic run to the World Cup final in London in 2018, but the Irish football team have managed to sustain it.
So much so, the concept of “Katie squared” has emerged. The name “Katie” was always reserved for Taylor, similar to how when you say “Sonia” people will always know you’re talking about O’Sullivan.
But Katie McCabe has managed to garner the public’s love, split public opinion and then regain that love in a very short time frame. She’s also made international commentators, pundits and fans sit up and pay attention to the fact that Ireland, shockingly, can play decent football when they want, rather than hoofing it.
In fact, McCabe is so popular, she has multiple accounts on social media dedicated to her, with one called “Did Katie McCabe get a yellow card” and another titled “Katie McCabe Ballon d’Or propaganda”. The first is dedicated to highlighting McCabe’s no-nonsense approach (see her bopping Chloe Kelly with the ball when an attempt was made to block a quick throw), and the second to her skills, and in particular her tendency to only score bangers (to use the technical term).
Away from McCabe, the team as a whole has overcome those who, just after the World Cup, questioned their professionalism in the wake of Vera Pauw leaving the manager’s post. When Diane Caldwell decided to unload the issues under Pauw to the press, many called the team prima donnas, and reminded them that they haven’t won anything yet.
And sure, that can be acknowledged, but given that they are now guaranteed a playoff spot for the 2025 European Championships and carried a 100 per cent record through their Nations League qualifying campaign, it feels like they are on the rise, especially given the talent now at their disposal.
Caitlin Hayes has been revolutionary in defence and has added to Ireland’s depth in attack too, ensuring the opposition aren’t just thinking about Louise Quinn in the box for corners. Tyler Toland, left out in the cold under Pauw, has also added a technical style of playing when transitioning from defence into attack, relieving Denise O’Sullivan of that role, and thereby allowing both O’Sullivan and McCabe to focus on getting forward.
Ireland are also preparing for the future by bringing in some incredible young WNL talent. Freya Healy and Ellen Dolan, both 16, were called into camp recently, while Jessie Stapleton made her second appearance in a green jersey. Abbie Larkin also became a favourite among fans as she pressed, harried and hassled opposition players to distraction.
Of course, there are greater challenges ahead, especially given how competitive European football is. Sweden, designated global leaders of the women’s game, won’t be at the Olympics for the first time, while Team GB were ousted from the Nations League final four, after the Netherlands defied the odds and hammered Belgium to secure their spot.
Spain, even with all their disarray at the top, are still competing to a very high standard thanks to the sheer talent of the players involved, while both Belgium and Italy are showing they can mix it at the top table.
Ireland will next be making this step up to take on the highest-ranked teams. They will (presumably) be doing so with a new coach, to follow on from interim manager Eileen Gleeson. If the FAI have everything in order, this transition should be announced and kick-started in the new year to give everyone time to adapt before the Euro 2025 qualifiers.
One thing that seems to be a guarantee is goals and drama. Casual fans are beginning to revel in the success and entertaining football. The next phase must encourage this team to play to their strengths instead of reverting to a stereotype that Irish players are only good for hoofing and scoring from set pieces. The future looks bright.