Ireland’s World Cup qualifying campaign ignites in Helsinki

Megan Connolly and Denise O’Sullivan on target as Vera Pauw’s win side in Finland

Finland 1 Ireland 2

Rare is a flag planting Irish victory in far flung stadiums. Rare and wonderful to behold on this chilly Tuesday night in Helsinki.

"This was not our most beautiful performance but it was the most effective," said Vera Pauw.

Ireland’s Dutch manager glared at her watch as the seconds ticked well past the four additional minutes. Her departing assistant Eileen Gleeson communicated without speaking. Calm. French referee Alexandra Collin was not going to deny them this moment.


The whistle blew and everyone wearing the heavily branded Sky gear exhaled in relief, more than joy, as breakout goals by Megan Connolly and the magnificent Denise O'Sullivan took all three points from the primary rivals for second place in Group A behind Sweden.

The sensational Katie McCabe might disagree. Sweden are by no means out of sight. Everything is possible now for the most gifted and clearly most tenacious women’s team the country has ever known.

Plenty should be name checked but Courtney Brosnan deserves enormous credit for turning her international career around with another no-nonsense performance as high balls rained down on her six-yard box. The late save of Emma Koivisto's diving header may well alter the direction of women's football in Ireland. If they qualify for the 2023 World Cup it will be remembered forever.

Tinja-Riikka Korpela will also remember cap 101. Especially her helpful touches for both Irish goals. With eight minutes on the clock a lovely piece of subterfuge caught the Finland goalkeeper cold. Having won a free-kick in the same spot where Lucy O’Driscoll curled a deflected goal on her debut against Australia last month, famously overruling McCabe, Korpela was primed for one or the other to have a pop.

As the Irish sharp shooters took aim, Connolly casually stepped up to lob the Finnish wall and beat their legendary captain. Thousands of screaming young girls went silent as Korpela let the ball through her gloves.

Being generous, she was caught on the hop. Being honest, it was poor goalkeeping.

An all-green huddle embraced Connolly as she celebrated a second international goal.

The perfect start justified McCabe being redeployed at fullback, despite being so effective at left midfield against Sweden last week.

Pauw has been clear throughout this ongoing national debate; she sees McCabe as a specialist wing back, so important in the modern game despite the structure forcing Ireland’s most creative talent to become a back-pedalling defender whenever Finland had possession, yet striding forward when Ireland launched a counter-attack.

She looked jaded by the interval. The Dubliner refused to flinch, constantly demanding passes that were certain to end in studs down her shins and ankles.

The Pauw theory makes sense, on paper, but the sight of the skipper flinging throw after throw at O’Sullivan, who trapped each ball with her back to goal, was precisely what Finland coach Anna Signeul wanted to see.

After Connolly’s early goal, McCabe was nailed down at leftback as Emmii Alanen and Linda Sällström asked all sorts of questions of the Irish back five.

O’Sullivan was a willing helper, dropping deep to draw a clever foul or make a precious touch ahead of Adelina Engman.

The Finns kept piling forward, winning numerous corners, with the closest chance, a header by Natalia Kuikka, dropping onto the roof of Brosnan’s goal.

The contest became a siege of Ireland’s left flank, with Savannah McCarthy’s lack of height constantly targeted.

A much needed water break arrived when O’Sullivan came off second best in a collision with Engman.

Half time was a welcome reprieve for visibly flagging Ireland players who were increasingly sloppy in possession. In particular, Niamh Fahey and Lucy Quinn heaped unnecessary pressure on their teammates. Whatever tactical advice Pauw relayed in the dressing room made little to no difference. Ireland's ultra-defensive shields of five and four encouraged Finland to tear them apart.

It took six minutes. McCabe was receiving attention on the sideline, after the latest heavy challenge, when Alanen stormed down the vacated patch and cut back for Engman to finish first time.

This, finally, forced Ireland out of their shell. Jamie Finn brilliantly let the ball to the work on the right before Korpela completely missed a speculative cross by Heather Payne that O'Sullivan nodded home at the back post.

The contest instantly reverted to the status quo. Backs to the wall, Fahey and Connolly made heroic interventions as O’Sullivan threatened to take complete control of midfield. She needed more help in possession. At least McCabe, battling through another vicious belt from Engman, powered up field to force a decent save from Korpela.

The 26-year-old leader of women forced her personality on the final quarter, missing the target with an effort that would have secured all three points before sprinting back into the rigid system.

There were so many ‘did-you-see-that’ moments but Payne’s meandering dribble, beating three Finns before forcing a corner, only to sprint 90 metres to put a sliding tackle on Kuikka tells us everything we need to know about this Republic of Ireland outfit.

It’s back to Tallaght and full steam ahead for Slovakia on November 25th.

Finland: Korpela (Tottenham Hotspur); Hyyrynen (Juventus), Westerlund (Åland United), Kuikka (Portland Thorns), Koivisto (Brighton and Hove Albion); Engman (Växjö DFF), Alanen (Växjö DFF), Summanen (Kristianstads DFF), Öling (FC Rosengård) - Sainio (HJK Helsinki) 85; Franssi (Real Sociedad), Sällström (HJK Helsinki) - Rantanen (KIF Orebro) 88.

Ireland: Brosnan (Everton); O'Gorman (Peamount United), Fahey (Liverpool), Louise Quinn (Birmingham City), McCarthy (Galway WFC), McCabe (Arsenal); Connolly (Brighton and Hove Albion), O'Sullivan (NC Courage), Finn (Birmingham City); Lucy Quinn (Birmingham City) - Jarrett (London City) 74, Payne (Florida State University).

Referee: Alexandra Collin (France).

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent