Football is an emotional game, for everyone involved. Players, managers, coaches, referees, supporters, men and women. The emotional journey is fundamental to the connection we have with our clubs and our countries.
When emotions are harnessed into collective belief, well, anything is possible.
For example, the Republic of Ireland’s 1-1 result in Gothenburg.
The current Ireland team stand on the shoulders of the women who went before them but they are ploughing their own furrow now.
An immense performance from Vera Pauw’s team against Sweden on Tuesday evening has sent the profile of the women’s national team to its highest point that I can remember. And it is utterly fantastic.
The Irish women produced a stellar performance, watched by an audience of over 250,000 on RTÉ, to take a point off the number two-ranked side in the world. On their own patch no less.
Ahead of the game, it was billed as a free hit for Pauw’s side but really, if this squad is to do what no female Irish team has done before, and qualify for a major tournament, then the mindset has to be about setting and maintaining the highest bar imaginable.
Before the game Katie McCabe said she would be disappointed if Ireland didn’t win. That’s exactly the type of mindset that these players need.
This stems from all the previous failures and near-misses. The flames of pain after Ukraine and Greece burn internally and fuel them to produce great results in Helsinki and Gothenburg.
Having something to believe in gives you something worth fighting that extra bit harder for. You might get that extra bit of luck, or they might have made their own luck. Either way, McCabe’s shot ended up in the Swedish net.
Ireland goalkeeper Courtney Brosnan is another great example of a player who firmly believed in what she needed to do to combat the Swedish attacks. She has had some difficult moments in the Irish shirt but the confidence, focus and determination of her performance on Tuesday set the standard of what a solid performance now looks like.
She did her job excellently.
As did Megan Connolly, stepping into the left centre-back position where Ireland had suffered a number of key injuries. In a composed display, Connolly adapted her skills as a defensive midfielder to the new position and did it seamlessly.
No ego, no fanfare, no label in her jersey telling her how to play the position, just a very good player doing what she could for her team.
It was a steadfast, resolute team performance. Not every action was executed perfectly but, as a team, they were like a brick wall of defiance against a Swedish outfit that really worked hard to find a way through to next year’s World Cup.
In the end, Sweden found one gap when Kosovare Asllani equalised late on but by that stage Ireland had already found their own way of scoring.
The Irish goal was as a result of a moment of elevated thinking. It started with a counterattack, into space that Irish players and staff had identified as a potential Swedish weakness. Recognising that they were in trouble, Magda Eriksson fouled cynically to deny Ireland the opportunity to outnumber them.
It was a good distance from goal and Eriksson took the yellow card. But McCabe spotted Connolly wide right. Not exactly where you would expect to see the left centre back, so perhaps this was preplanned.
Connolly whipped the ball into the box and when it fell to Denise O’Sullivan, McCabe made her presence known so she could receive a pass in space on her favoured left foot.
The shot took a wild deflection and Ireland were 1-0 up.
That goal did not come by mere chance. It was a collaboration of a number of preconceived strategies that connected seamlessly within the game, due to the commitment of the players to the game plan.
When things come off in matches, it garners belief. Belief that you can create a scenario to land a punch that can stun your opponent. Every team has a weakness. Even Sweden.
Ireland hit them where it would hurt before matching a relentless Swedish attack with organised defence.
Meanwhile, in a week when women’s football on this island made more great strides forward, it was disappointing to hear Kenny Shiels comments in the aftermath of Northern Ireland’s defeat to England on Tuesday night.
Following a landmark match in Belfast, where the National Stadium sold out a women’s international for the first time, the Northern Ireland manager made what were ill-judged comments about female players conceding goals in quick succession “because they are more emotional than men”.
An apology for his comments and the offence they caused was followed by a strong statement of support by Northern Ireland team captain, Marissa Callaghan, for her manager.
There is no doubt Shiels has made a hugely positive impact with the senior women’s team and their achievement of qualifying for this summer’s European Championships in England should not be underestimated. Mindset changes will have been a huge catalyst in qualifying.
Yes, goals can be conceded in quick succession in matches but it happens in men’s and women’s football. It’s difficult to comprehend why he felt the need to focus on it being uniquely something that happens “at all levels of the women’s game”.
There is no doubt that mastery of emotions is a crucial component of delivering excellent performances in moments of high pressure, but to flagrantly bill this as an issue unique to the women’s game was damaging and an unnecessary reinforcement of prehistoric stereotyping and biases.
Controlling emotions, being able to focus on doing the right things at the right time, making decisions and executing them is what the elite end of football is all about. Male and female.
With bigger attendances, more media coverage, analysis and scrutiny, there can inevitably be a feeling of extra pressure for players in the women’s game, but this is also something that is experienced by male players as they progress through the ranks and reach the highest levels.
Mental training is just as important as physical, tactical and technical preparation when developing athletes/players to perform at their best, no matter who they are. Emotions can get the better of anyone in big moments, and that’s because we are all human.