Katie McCabe question hangs over Ireland as they go into must-win Georgia clash

Vera Pauw says she will stick to her system after disappointing draw with Slovakia

2023 Women’s World Cup qualifier: Republic of Ireland v Georgia

Kick-off: 7pm, Tuesday. Venue: Tallaght Stadium. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin at 6.30pm. On TV: Live on RTÉ Two.

Even with Heather Payne’s head buried in the books, Ireland must overwhelm Georgia to stand any chance of reaching the 2023 World Cup.

Tonight’s visitors to the foothills of the Dublin mountains are cannon fodder. In their three qualifiers against Sweden, Slovakia and Finland, they conceded nine and scored zero, so a goal spree is expected, if not demanded as ticket sales tick towards 4,000.


Led by the indomitable Katie McCabe, who either is or isn’t being properly utilised in a system that comes under increasing scrutiny, as Ireland attempt to paper over Courtney Brosnan’s propensity for sloppiness, along with some acrobatic saves, in almost every game. The Everton goalkeeper starts despite the addition of Brighton’s Megan Walsh to the squad.

Such glaring issues threaten to derail yet another qualification campaign amidst the peak years of Ireland’s greatest ever performers, McCabe and Denise O’Sullivan.

The relatively fluid 3-4-2-1 formation is designed to be ultra-defensive without the ball as much as it should unleash Ireland’s athletic dynamos on the counter attack.

It is undoubtedly the hill Vera Pauw’s tenure will succeed or fail upon.

Last Thursday’s 1-1 draw with a limited if aggressive Slovak side was supposed to be the test that proved Ireland have developed a consistency of performance on Pauw’s watch.

The Slovak goal has caused plenty of commotion. In Pauw’s immediate post-match interview, it sounded like the defensive malfunction was due to McCabe darting up the left wing.

“If individuals are going forward and think they can run out of the organisation, this is what you get,” Pauw told RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue “We have to learn that you cannot just do your own thing.”

Maybe the Dutch coach, after an 89-cap career followed by five international jobs and a curious season at Houston Dash in 2018, knows what is best for Irish football. Because that means knowing what is the best position for McCabe.

Turns out, as Pauw stated on Monday, that every single Irish player bar McCabe was at fault for Slavia Prague’s Martina Surnovská’s tap in.

“The agreement is not to go over the spine of the pitch because then you can’t cope with the space that is left on the other side. And that is what happened; the whole midfield and defensive line and the attackers. Katie was the only one in position actually.”

McCabe had tucked in beside an already lob-sided defensive three as Ireland fought to retrieve Áine O’Gorman’s pass to nobody having been put in a tricky spot by Niamh Fahey. When O’Sullivan appeared to have won the ball back, McCabe rapidly switched from left back to her natural attacking disposition, as seen every week with Arsenal.

If Megan Connolly could have controlled the bobbling ball and switched the play to McCabe, we would be having a different conversation. Instead, it fell to Mariá Mikolajová, who picked out Ludmila Mat’avková, who had gambled in much the same way as McCabe.

Ireland’s defenders were caught ball watching so by the time Mat’aková took a touch and lobbed a cross to the back post, Savannah McCarthy was out of the action, Louise Quinn was crossing the penalty spot while Fahey appeared to have eyes on Surnovská.

“It was three v two so we were actually fine in numbers but not in spaces,” Pauw explained.

Fahey missed Surnovská’s change of direction in this costly snapshot from an underwhelming performance.

Pauw was asked if the system is working and, if not, if she is willing to change it?

“It is not my system,” she replied, “it is a system to get the best out of our players. For example, there is a lot of debate about Katie’s role and I appreciate that because we are debating that every day, how to get the best out of her and every player.

“Some players are more serving and other players are more leading, and Katie is definitely a player that leads. And we don’t want to take her creativity away and we don’t want to take her driving forward away but it is not for nothing that the new coach of Arsenal has tried her on the left wing, has tried her attacking, at right striker and she ends up as the left defender again, because Katie is so strong in getting there. If she is already there we don’t get half as much out of her or even somebody suggesting in the centre, believe it, we have tried that of course. We want to win too, huh?

“But, in this moment, [WING BACK]is really the best position for her to get the best out of her.”

And yet, forcing McCabe to play more fullback than winger has become the blueprint for every team seeking to blunt Ireland’s attack.

“We have to win if we are to go to the World Cup,” added Pauw before confirming that Kyra Carusa will lead the line now that Payne’s Olympic level of endurance has been refocused to her course work at Florida State University.

Ireland (possible): Brosnan; O'Gorman, Caldwell, Louise Quinn, McCarthy, McCabe; Littlejohn, Connolly; Finn, O'Sullivan; Carusa.

Referee: Jurgita Macikunyte (Lithuania).

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent