Then comes the moon landing. That’s how far away a World Cup always seemed, until now.
From delayed start to finish in the stands, Ireland’s valiant efforts to qualify for a major tournament provided groundbreaking nights, ecstatic gatherings and a heartbreaking personal journey.
It’s as much about Vera as it is about Katie and Denise looting the Goals to escape decades of desperation. It was about results. In Helsinki and Gothenburg. And Tallaght nights. Glorious and howling nights of Tallaght.
It was about Courtney Brosnan’s unseen tutorials with goalkeeping coach Jan Willem van Ede and her heroism seen in the shadow of Sonia O’Sullivan’s eternal moment at Ullevi Stadium. It was about Louise, the powerful Quinn, dominating the others.
There was never any question of equal pay. Or the FAI’s snail’s pace to fill a women’s strategic committee when it’s admittedly failing to fill its board with female voices.
It was about sacrifice. A ruthless individual sacrifice.
“We don’t get the money that the men get, where they can pick up and bring their families,” Quinn explained of a club career in Sweden, Italy, North London and now in Birmingham, just to make a living.
“You have to do your dream job away from your loved ones.”
These were historic revelations from women who lived under the threat of mental and physical violence in the workplace.
“It’s all over the world and it happens every day,” Irish coach Vera Pauw said after sexual coercion allegations were made against North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley last year.
“Here in Ireland we are safe. There is a safe environment. It also feels in the team. But wherever there have been players [they] have had such experiences.
Riley denied the allegations.
Last July, the NRC newspaper in the Netherlands published a 6,000-word interview with Pauw detailing rape and two separate incidents of “sexually transgressive behavior” by three men who worked in Dutch football between 1986 and 1997.
Pauw’s time in Ireland was devoted to the philosophy of ‘periodisation of football’. It is a ruthless commitment to a system that clearly works.
The uprising began by snapping a seven-game losing streak in September 2021 as Australia were thrashed 3-2 at Tallaght.
“What a bunch of tigers we have,” Pauw said. “We now know that we are on the right track and we will go our own way.”
World Cup qualifying campaign, Group A
Ireland 0-1 Sweden
World No. 2 against No. 33, Ireland almost snatched a point. The own goal was cruel; Stina Blackstenius ran over the ball from Filippa Angeldal to score Quinn’s heel.
“We’re stepping up and getting closer and closer,” Pauw said. “It’s such a shame that for a moment of organization, we did not bond.”
Ireland: Brosnan; Finn, Fahey, Louise Quinn, McCarthy, O’Gorman; Lucy Quinn (Barrett 74), Connolly (Noonan 90), O’Sullivan, McCabe; Payne (Kiernan 74).
Big picture: As the squad gathered in Dublin, Pauw vaguely mentioned his own personal experiences after The Athletic published detailed accusations of abuse by Riley. “In Ireland, I have never experienced anything like this before,” she said. “And I hope it will continue like this. In all the other countries I have experienced this. Everywhere I have coached. Pauw has previously worked in the Netherlands, South Africa, Russia, in Scotland, Thailand and Houston.
Finland 1-2 Ireland
Olympic Stadium, Helsinki
Connolly’s Curling Free Kick Washingtons overturned by Andelina Engman’s controversial goal, scored as the constantly hacked McCabe received treatment, before the exceptional O’Sullivan headed in a late winner. There were so many ‘did you see it’ moments but Heather Payne beat three Finns to force a corner then sprinted 90 yards to tackle Natalia Kuikka, summing up the collective attitude.
“It becomes our mantra: never fall apart, never give up, stay in control,” Pauw said. “Keep playing your game plan no matter what happens on the pitch.”
Ireland: Brosnan; O’Gorman, Fahey, Louise Quinn, McCarthy, McCabe; Connolly, O’Sullivan, Finn; Lucy Quinn (74-year-old Jarrett), Payne.
Big Picture: “I’m disgusted to lose her, I respect her so much,” Pauw said of assistant coach Eileen Gleeson who became Glasgow City manager. “We tell each other everything we want without getting lost.”
Ireland 1-1 Slovakia
No 33 against No 45 in the Fifa rankings, Ireland stumble in arctic conditions, until O’Sullivan and McCabe combine to save a draw with the skipper’s excellent equalizer in the 66th minute after the goal by Martina Surnovska caused all sorts of problems.
“If individuals go ahead and think they can leave the organization, that’s what you get,” Pauw told RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue. “We have to learn that you can’t just do your own thing.” A few days later, the coach backtracked on that stormy cup of tea, saying it wasn’t referring to the Ireland captain: “Katie was the only one in position actually.”
Ireland were lucky to avoid a defeat as a Brosnan error gave Laura Zemberyová an open goal attempt – Quinn miraculously cleared the line.
Ireland: Brosnan; Fahey, Louise Quinn, McCarthy; O’Gorman (Littlejohn 70), Finn, Connolly, O’Sullivan, McCabe; Lucy Quinn (Carusa 84), Payne.
Ireland 11-0 Georgia
[O’Sullivan 3, McCabe 2, Carusa, Lucy Quinn, Noonan, Barrett, Caldwell, Bebia og]
McCabe made O’Sullivan player of the match, despite the latter’s hat-trick, as a record score fell on an extremely young crowd.
“Goals can be a huge, huge step towards qualification,” Pauw said. “They give us a stamp.”
Ireland: Brosnan; Fahey, Louise Quinn, Caldwell; Ziu (Barrett 75), Littlejohn, Connolly, McCabe; O’Sullivan, Lucy Quinn (McLaughlin 67); Caruse (Noonan 75).
Sweden 1-1 Ireland
Memories old and new rolled into one. Next to the Ullevi asphalt, where Sonia O’Sullivan won the 5000 meters gold medal at the 1995 World Championships, Katie McCabe’s wildly deflected strike forced the best from a Swedish team stacked with talents from Barcelona, Juventus, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain.
With eleven minutes remaining, AC Milan striker Kosovare Asllani finally beat Brosnan, who put in the performance of his dreams, in what turned out to be a fair but surprising result.
“We are Irish,” said Megan Connolly. “We will fight until the end. We leave everything on the pitch, so we can accept the result.
Three months later, Sweden reached the semi-finals of the Euros only to be beaten 4-0 by England.
Ireland: Brosnan; Finn, Fahey, Louise Quinn, Connolly, Mustaki; Lucy Quinn, O’Sullivan, Littlejohn, McCabe; Payne (Kiernan 74).
Big picture: “In women’s football I’ve noticed, and I’m sure you know this if you follow the patterns, when a team concedes a goal, they concede a second in a very short period of time, throughout of women’s football,” said Northern Ireland manager Kenny Shiels, “because girls and women are more emotional than men, so they don’t take a goal very well.
Shiels’ subsequent apology found a global audience. .
Georgia 0-9 Ireland
[McCabe 3, Louise Quinn 2, Fahey, Larkin, O’Sullivan, Connolly]
Tengiz Burjanadze Stadium, Gori
Postponed from October 2021, due to Covid restrictions, a McCabe inspired Ireland came, saw and conquered a Georgian populace only good for reckless fouls. Abbie Larkin, 17, scored the first of many international goals.
“Let’s get it over with now,” Pauw said ahead of a “final” against Finland.
Ireland: Brosnan; Fahey, Louise Quinn, Caldwell; Payne (Lucy Quinn 62), Connolly, Littlejohn (Agg 62), McCabe; O’Sullivan, Ziu; Barrett (Larkin 62).
Big picture: “They ruined my life,” said Pauw of Dutch football federation KVNB before a male coach denied raping her in 1986. “I do it for myself, to take away some of the pain, even if he will no longer be [prosecuted].”
Ireland 1-0 Finland
“By the head of an Englishwoman!” roared McCabe into the group after Lily Agg’s 54th-minute goal from a free Connolly calmed collective nerves.
“This team has been through a lot,” O’Sullivan said. “We have absolutely grown as a team since 2017 at Liberty Hall and to have it all come to fruition tonight is incredible. At the final whistle, I fell to my knees and there were a few tears. I kissed Katie, it’s for all the hard work we’ve done. I cannot describe it. Ireland showed up tonight, you could really feel the energy, thanks to them. We have a long way to go. We will enjoy this evening but we will get back to work tomorrow.
“A few years ago we couldn’t have done this. Finland are a very good team, so getting six points shows how much we’ve grown, it’s amazing. This prepares us well for these play-offs.
Ireland face Slovakia on Tuesday at Senec with play-offs to follow in October against opponents yet to be determined.
“We’re not afraid of anyone,” O’Sullivan said.
The draw will take place on Friday September 9th.