As the jubilant Irish players celebrated their finest ever result in Gothenburg on Tuesday night, it was hard not to think of the party this progressing team will miss this summer.
The boom in women’s football promises to grow during the European Championships. RTÉ will broadcast the tournament while tickets for the July 31 final at Wembley Stadium have already sold out with English audiences expecting their national team to be there.
Regardless of how good the hosts are, the whole month promises to be a celebration of the growth of women’s football. And if Irish players can bring themselves to watch the action, they’ll wonder how Finland and Northern Ireland are on the big stage while they’re away.
Finland, after all, were beaten by Ireland in Helsinki, another sign of development under Vera Pauw. Northern Ireland actually made great strides under Kenny Shiels, despite the misguided nonsense he spouted during the week about ’emotional’ women, but they were lucky to attract a beatable Ukraine in the play-offs, – the same side that upset Ireland when their qualifying campaign failed in Kyiv.
Over the past year, the team has played as if intent on redeeming itself from this loss. They bounced back impressively.
Despite riding a seven-game losing streak before shocking Australia at Tallaght in September, Pauw and the players insisted they were learning with every game against higher-ranked opponents.
Indeed, we can gauge the qualities of Belgium and Iceland at the Euros this year. Courtney Brosnan bore much of the blame for that 1-0 loss in Ukraine, after a mix-up between her and Áine O’Gorman saw the ball go past her and into the net.
It took the New Jersey-born keeper a while to convince fans that she deserved to be the number one pick, especially since Brighton’s Megan Walsh, one of the most consistent goalkeepers in the Women’s Super League, is now part of the team. .
But last Tuesday, Brosnan’s takeover was offered. She was probably the best player in Ireland, around her goal mouth and communicative with her defenders. She also provided the moment of the match – a wonderful fingertip save that her captain Katie McCabe said was “world class”.
If Ireland had lasted another 12 or 13 minutes, Filippa Angeldal’s 61st-minute save would have immediately entered Irish sporting folklore.
Brosnan was an assured presence from the first whistle, not even a few pigeons populating her goalmouth when Stina Blackstenius swung in an early cross seemed to throw her off balance. If she’s feeling pressure from Walsh – who may have started but for contracting Covid – the keeper wasn’t showing it.
“You’re always a bit nervous before a game, but it’s always the same, you just have to focus on your task and what you have to do, not think too much about emotions,” Brosnan explained.
“As soon as you get that first contact, whether it’s off a stoppage or with your feet, you settle in, no matter the crowd or the game, and you feel ready to play. That one was pretty early on, and it was great to claim it and relax in the game.’
Even though Brosnan has improved noticeably over the past year, having received conviction from his manager, the situation at his club was cause for concern.
She last played for Everton a month ago in a 3-0 loss to Chelsea and has sat on the bench for spells this season as an understudy for England goalkeeper Sandy McIver. It’s a contrast to Walsh and Grace Moloney who both play regularly.
“I think I’ve said it many times before, but we have great goalkeepers in this team and we come every day to push each other to be better,” Brosnan explained. “It’s such a healthy environment. I’m just trying to keep my head down and maintain the performance from previous camps.
And the keeper insists his situation at the Toffees is not in his head.
“I think everyone wants to play all the time. When that doesn’t happen, you just have to control what you can control. Obviously, I’m just trying to focus on my training and being the best I can be, so when my chance comes at club level, I’ll be ready.
If she is unable to unseat McIver at club level, there will certainly be plenty of interest from other WSL clubs and even those following her exploits in Gothenburg. His confidence will certainly be boosted by playing such an important role in this team’s biggest milestone to date.
“Any kind of result – a win or a draw against a top opponent, number one in Europe – is huge. It means the world to me, means the world to the girls. It’s great for us to go forward, but we know how important the next three games are, so it’s good to see the progression and growth of this team.
“We have to keep our heads down and work for the next three games to get that play-off spot.”
Too bad women’s football is in bad shape and everyone can see it on our TV screens this summer, but Ireland won’t be there. That said, the ISP should capitalize on the momentum generated by the euro.
Over 230,000 viewers watched last Tuesday’s game, despite the 5.30pm kickoff. The Irish public, who love nothing more than a bandwagon, are firmly behind McCabe, Denise O’Sullivan and the rest of this impressive team.
The crucial match of this qualifying campaign will take place on September 1 when Finland arrive in Dublin. At the moment, this match is scheduled for the Tallaght stadium, which has played an important role in the development of this team. But maybe for such a massive game there should be an effort to move it to Aviva Stadium. The players deserve it.
Pauw said in November that she did not want her Irish women’s team to play at Aviva Stadium if only 7,000 fans showed up. “The Aviva would be fantastic if we could fill it. That would be great. It will come. But playing in an empty stadium will not help us,” said the Dutchwoman.
But if he is promoted correctly, there is no reason for the stadium to be empty. Invest in the goodwill that surrounds the team. The game comes just a month after a sold-out Wembley Stadium will host the Euro 2022 final.
Set the right prices, market the game by playing on the Euro 2022 final and the recent 91,513 who watched Barcelona’s Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid at the Camp Nou. Windsor Park was sold out for Northern Ireland’s friendly against England on Tuesday.
It’s time for the ambition of this Irish team to be matched by others – if nothing else, stepping into a raucous atmosphere with over 30,000 supporters at Lansdowne Road will ease the pain of missing out on this summer’s big party.