Just what you need at the start of your World Cup qualifying campaign: Sweden coming to town. With the United States the only nation on earth above them in the world rankings. There were 4,000 in Tallaght, though, to assist Ireland in their efforts to create the mother, granny, aunty, sister and niece of all upsets, including the President when he could have been up North celebrating partition. That's how big a deal this was.
Vera Pauw, who could put a positive spin on the housing crisis, told Tony O'Donoghue that her chosen team would play in a kind of a 3-5-2 formation, but Peter Collins's panel of Megan Campbell, Stephanie Roche and the always highly brilliant Karen Duggan weren't convinced, fearing it would be more of the 9-0-1 variety.
“She’ll have her work cut out,” said Stephanie of forward Heather Payne’s likely task in the 90 minutes ahead – and Stephanie’s been there – a fear Lisa Fallon later echoed in the commentary box. “It’s going to be a long, lonely night for Heather up there.”
But at least she’d have Katie McCabe nearer by, the Arsenal woman having been selected on the left-ish of midfield-ish, rather than stationed at left back or left wing back, where she usually plays for her club.
McCabe is sort of Ireland’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, the debate around how best to deploy her talents, especially on the international front, largely implying that a gifted footballer is utterly wasted in the full back position. This, of course, makes the the full backs’ union’s heads explode, and they’re still laughing after Trent was tried out at midfield against Andorra where he looked at home as, dunno, Michael D might have done at a partition knees-up.
No monster surprises in the starting line-up, the core of which was McCabe, Payne, Denise O'Sullivan, Louise Quinn, Niamh Fahey, Áine O'Gorman and Megan Connolly, a line-up that very much belongs at a major tournament – such as, like, the World Cup – the pressure on them to produce the goods this time around, after fecking it up last time, quite big.
But Pauw had already ceded top spot in the group to Sweden, a surrender, before a ball was kicked, that didn’t sit comfortably with Duggan, even if she acknowledged that that was the most likely outcome. Finland, next Tuesday’s opponents in Helsinki, are the chief targets in the battle for the runners-up spot and the torturous playoff route.
Still, Pauw told O’Donoghue pre-match, with no little glint in her eye, that “we believe we can stun the world”, which suggested that she had revised her Sweden-ceding-thinking.
But when Sweden emerged from their Tallaght tunnel – and maybe it’s something about yellow shirts – they looked, on average, about nine foot three. Which led you to worrying that our set-piece prowess – we’re looking at your head, Louise Quinn – might be somewhat annulled.
First half. Going nicely. Granted, Sweden should have had a penalty, but hush. Beforehand, Stephanie had talked about us needing some luck. And then Savannah McCarthy's feet went from under her as she tracked the wily movements of Stina Blackstenius, the Swede's tame looking attempt on goal deflecting off Louise Quinn's left ankle, leaving Courtney Brosnan with as much chance of saving the goalward ball as she has of picking the winning Lotto numbers.
No lip-reading skills were required, “**** sake”, mouthed Quinn, speaking for the nation.
“A blow to the solar plexus,” as Peter put it at half-time, his panel nodding dolefully.
And 1-0 is how it ended, which, considering Sweden’s status, was no small feat. Not that you want to be entering ‘we lost again, but only by a small bit’ territory, but look, goal difference might matter, so we can but hope the Swedes muller everyone else.
Player of the Match: Courtney Brosnan, the New Jersey-born daughter of Roscommon and Kerry grandparents who used to play in France but is now on Everton’s books. It’s an international game, this football lark.
“I can only say it was again better than the previous time,” Pauw told Tony. “We’re getting closer and closer, I hope Ireland is proud of these tigers.”
Next, the biggie against Finland next Tuesday in Helsinki. Time for the tigers to, well, growl and bring those three points home. Or one, anyway. They’re good enough. Time to show it.