Iceland friendly will provide a good gauge of progress for Ireland
Friday’s opponents have kicked on since the two sides met in Euro playoffs in 2008
Saoirse Noonan and Ciara Grant battle for the ball during a training fixture. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
In the recurrent debate over why the Republic of Ireland women remain without a major tournament qualification, a sliding doors moment with Friday’s opponents Iceland provides the starkest of insights.
Back in 2008, the nations were fairly evenly-matched heading into the playoff for a place at next year’s European Championships.
Noel King’s side’s position of 27 in the Fifa rankings was just six off their opponents, a portent for the 1-1 draw they played out in Richmond Park.
Ireland then skidded off course during the second leg in Reykjavik.
King pleaded with Uefa officials for the game to be postponed as the November temperature dipped below freezing before kick-off but it went ahead and Ireland lost 3-0 on what Emma Byrne described as an “ice rink” of a pitch.
The divergence has continued apace since. While Ireland haven’t managed to even replicate that playoff stage in six campaigns since, the qualification triggered the first of three successive trips to the Euros for Iceland. Now up to 17 in the world, in contrast to Ireland in 34, they’ll enjoy a fourth jaunt to the delayed showpiece in England next year.
It certainly helps having a star player. Sara Björk has been central to their success, breaking new ground too for an Icelandic player by winning the Champions League with Lyon last year, but won’t feature in the two friendlies against Ireland having recently confirmed her pregnancy.
In her absence, the creative mantle will fall to West Ham United’s Dagný Brynjarsdóttir, Gunnhildur Yrsa Jónsdóttir of Orlando Pride and Karólína Lea Vilhjálmsdóttir, Bayern Munich’s recent recruit.
For Ireland, the task over the games on Friday and Tuesday will be trying to avoid extending their five-match losing streak.
There’s been no equivalent to Andorra in their preparation for the World Cup qualifiers starting in September; they just need to cure their goalscoring problems most recently evident in April during the 1-0 defeats to Denmark and Belgium.
Covill has pedigree, having helped Glasgow City reach the Uefa Champions League quarter-finals last year, and her switch through the international transfer system from her homeland of Australia adds another option.
Noonan, meanwhile, has been long touted as the potential saviour. The Cork dual star sacrificed her GAA commitments to join Shelbourne for this season, the first stepping-stone towards a fully professional club career abroad.
Redressing some of the balance on the Vikings would at least break the ice.