TV View: One of the very best as Ireland come of age in Finland

Republic play on the front foot and achieve their potential to spark a World Cup dream

Denise O’Sullivan wheels away after scoring Ireland’s winner against Finland. Photograph: Kalle Parkkinen/Inpho

Denise O’Sullivan wheels away after scoring Ireland’s winner against Finland. Photograph: Kalle Parkkinen/Inpho

 

Ah here, now we’re whistling. The right foot of Megan Connolly and the head of Denise O’Sullivan did the trick, and Cork will never let us forget it. But they’re entitled to gloat, their daughters did their country some service in Helsinki on Tuesday afternoon, not even Methuselah old enough to remember a finer away result in a competitive game by our women’s team.

And even Cork, you’d guess, would be magnanimous enough to salute the contributions to the highly heroic effort of Galway (Niamh Fahey and Heather Payne), Wicklow (Louise Quinn and Áine O’Gorman), Dublin (Katie McCabe and Jamie Finn), Southampton (Lucy Quinn) and New Jersey (Courtney Brosnan), although they might stop short of thanking Savannah McCarthy’s native county, it being Kerry.

There’d been a notion for a while that if this bunch of players were given the freedom to do what they do most weeks at club level, rather than attempt to form the international footballing equivalent of the Maginot Line every time they set foot on a pitch, they’d realise their potential in them there green shirts. Helsinki, how are ya?

It’ll be four years next month since Ireland had an away result that left you thinking this team could do exceedingly good things, among their line-up that night in Nijmegen, when they drew 0-0 with reigning European champions the Netherlands in a World Cup qualifier, Karen Duggan.

She, then, knows more than most about this team’s potential, Louise Quinn, Fahey, O’Sullivan and McCabe team-mates of hers that night, the squad since bolstered by the likes of Payne and Finn.

Good rattle

So, there was no chat about just giving it a good rattle in Helsinki and if they lost, so be it. “A loss here would be. . . and I don’t want to be too dramatic . . . catastrophic, really,” she said.

Chloe Mustaki echoed that view, adding to the excellence of RTÉ’s pundits for these games, none of them content with a pat on the head for gutsy losses. “We need to get something out of this,” she said, “it’s about time we showed the calibre of players we have, I think we should be gunning for a win.”

Duggan, meanwhile, was just hoping that O’Sullivan in particular would be given the freedom to show just how bloody good she is, rather than spending the bulk of her time joining in on fire-extinguishing efforts at the back.

With the team including three centre-halves, she reckoned that should be plenty to look after Finland’s front two, rather than looking to O’Sullivan and her midfield colleagues “to hold their hands” and screen them from any danger.

But after just 10 minutes it was Finland who were undone by the danger of Connolly’s right foot, her Curly-Wurly-Wonder of a free giving Ireland a lead to defend to the death. Except, quite beautifully, that’s not the route they chose, instead harrying and harassing the bejaysus out of their opponents and looking to double that lead at every opportunity.

“I’m beaming inside,” said Mustaki come the break, this was what she and Duggan had been pining to see. “Tenacious from the first whistle,” Duggan purred. O’Sullivan’s performance? “Insane, but it’s what we’ve come to expect from Denise.”

Second-half. Katie McCabe off injured, Finland exploit the gap on the left, and equalise. Another one of those days? Probably, because so often with Ireland it’s the hope that kills you and . . . hold yer horses. Payne up the right, lovely cross, Finnish goalie Tinja-Riika Korpela lost at sea, O’Sullivan’s there, nods it home.

Jubilant

“That,” a jubilant Stephanie Roche informed Darragh Maloney, “is why we want her higher up the pitch.”

That was the 56th minute, so the spell between then and when the ref blew her final whistle had the feeling of several lifetimes, “it’s not good for your nerves,” as Roche put it.

But the best thing was that Ireland largely chose to defend by attacking, like they were a side that had come to realise that they’re really rather good.

Still, the final whistle was the very loveliest of sounds, as was the resulting celebration of players who’ve been through the emotional mill these past few years. It’s still a long, long, long road to Australia/New Zealand 2023, but the journey just seems a little more doable after this.

Player of the match? “Her GPS is smokin’,” Duggan laughed, the O’Sullivan woman, of course.

“It wasn’t pretty, but we’ll go home happy,” she told Tony O’Donoghue post-match. It was the only mistake O’Sullivan made all afternoon. It was so pretty, it was flippin’ gorgeous.

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