Four years on from tracksuit-gate, Ireland have eyes on a World Cup

Sky sponsorship, record-breaking wins and attendances the highlights of the year

It was in early November that the Football Association of Ireland enlisted members of their men's and women's senior squads to model their new away kit. While nothing was more striking than that very orange jersey, something else that was hard to miss was the absence of a sponsor on the men's shirts, while 'SKY' was emblazoned across those worn by the women.

It had been two months before that the FAI announced that Sky had become the women’s first ever stand-alone sponsor, the company agreeing a four-year deal. At the same time, they were still looking for a replacement for Three who opted not to renew their deal when it expired in the summer of 2020, hence the sponsor-less men’s shirts.

Now, comparing the value of these kinds of contracts would be akin to likening apples to oranges. The undisclosed Sky deal was said to be worth a six figure sum per annum, so even if you plump for something in the middle of €100,000 and €999,999, it would still pale next to the €2.5m a year the FAI is seeking from potential sponsors of the men’s teams.

Still, this was a good news story for the women’s set-up, one that showed that their growing profile had made them, in the eyes of a major company, a marketable commodity, much as the use of such lingo should generally be punishable by a custodial sentence.

But the optics of that logo on their shirts were good, there was a prestige about it, not least because it had only been four years since tracksuit-gate when, as the squad's solicitor Stuart Gilhooly put it back then, they were "the dirt on the FAI's shoe".

These days, the FAI can’t get enough of its senior women’s team, even agreeing back in August to pay its players the same match fees as the lads receive. Four years, it would seem, is a long time in football. The players who took a stand that day in Liberty Hall did their sport some service.

All these off-the-field advances, though, needed to be matched by progress on it, and come the halfway point of 2021, Republic of Ireland manager Vera Pauw was struggling to sound convincing when she was insisting that her team would be in good shape come the start of the World Cup qualifying campaign in October.

Year of two halves

By then, after all, they were on a seven-game losing streak, failing to score in five of them, and not giving a whole lot of cause for optimism.

Happily, to adapt the phrase, it turned out to be a year of two halves, the highlights of the second part a morale-boosting friendly win over Australia, followed by two results that helped the team finish the first half of their World Cup qualifying campaign in the play-off spot - an exceptional 2-1 win away to Finland and a record 11-0 thumping of Georgia.

It's not that that second half was flawless, November's draw with Slovakia in Tallaght once again exposing the team's unhappy knack of failing to find a way of bettering stubborn opposition (see Greece and Ukraine in the Euro 2022 qualifying campaign), while the home defeat by Sweden had another 'moral victory' feel about it, admirable and all as the performance was against the world's second-ranked team.

But the win away to Finland had a landmark feel to it, like this team finally realised how good it could be if it trusted itself and showed a little adventure.

That they did in Helsinki, when the expectation might have been that they would dig in and hope to cling on for a draw after Adelina Engman cancelled out Megan Connolly's opening goal. Instead, they hunted in packs for the win, three players waiting in the box, and two on the edge of it, when Heather Payne sent in a cross from the right in the 56th minute, Denise O'Sullivan heading it home for what proved to be the winner.

Granted, the 11-0 win over Georgia wasn’t the best ad for women’s international football, one of 12 double-digit wins in the European section of the qualifying campaign thus far, England’s 20-0 win over Latvia the most mortifying of all.

But, no matter, Ireland showed an admirable ruthlessness against a side that Finland, their rivals for that play-off spot, only managed to score three against in their October meeting. If that play-off spot comes down to goal difference, we’ll be doffing our caps to ruthlessness.

A record television audience for an Irish women’s international tuned in on RTÉ, peaking at 340,000 in the closing stages, and it was no small thing that George Hamilton was on commentary duty that night, him being the voice of Irish football and all.

“They are now becoming a story,” he said, “I couldn’t wait for that match to start because there was such expectation in the air.” Despite the abysmal weather, a crowd of 3,552 turned up for the game, much of them young girls who, thanks largely to television coverage, are now intimately familiar with the faces of this Irish team, mainly the 12 who play in England’s Super League which is now broadcast by Sky and the BBC, Arsenal’s Katie McCabe the shining star.

The year ahead for this Irish team will be huge. Sweden and Georgia away in April and June, Finland at home in September, and finishing with Slovakia away later in the same month.

Qualifying for their first major tournament would be a breakthrough like no other, it would put the progress of the last few years in the ha’penny place. From tracksuit-gate to Australia/New Zealand 2023? The mother of all trips.

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