It has been quite the year for the national team. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on a year which saw the side play in the FIFA Women’s World Cup for the first time, the end of the Vera Pauw era and the start of the Eileen Gleeson era with Nations League promotion.
World Cup Focus
This review is essentially split into two parts with the World Cup dominating the first seven months of the year and then Nations League for the remainder.
The friendly matches at the start of the year look to elevate the opposition quality in preparation for the tournament. A draw against China in Spain setup a dual friendly series with the USA.
Two losses in Austin and St. Louis but the performance in the second game was vastly improved in terms of possession and team shape. The final third threat though a concern but the two game series was beneficial for Vera Pauw and management in starting World Cup squad selection discussions.
By the time we reached June, it was clear that Vera Pauw had decided to put her trust in USA based players. Carusa, Farrelly and Sheva all included in the final squad. Lengthy debate continued with the omission of Jamie Finn in particular. Aoife Mannion a big loss in the defensive squad depth ranks.
The Zambia friendly win saw Amber Barrett impress but the midfield and defensive shape without the ball was a concern. Zambia’s final third movement a warning shot. France arrived and secured a routine 0-3 win but the loss was disregarded quite quickly with the Australia / New Zealand adventure about to start.
Australia in the opening day of the tournament was an amazing spectacle. Republic of Ireland competitive but a distinct lack of final third quality on display with defensive naivety seen with Sheva’s tackle leading to the Australia penalty.
Sheva exposed and the spotlight started to shine more on Pauw as the campaign progressed. The WSL misconduct report findings were a shadow over Pauw since December ’22 but this intensified as the year progressed. The player support started to wane as questions on Pauw’s future were raised.
This was a group of missed opportunities for the Republic of Ireland. The Canadian fixture saw an excellent opening half in awful weather conditions. Katie McCabe opener should have been added to and at this level, you get punished.
Pauw had zero confidence in her central defensive depth chart. Megan Connolly thrust into a central defender position during the tournament.
The assumption now is that Aoife Mannion would have started if fit for the tournament. Connolly’s own goal giving Canada the foothold required and the second goal soon followed.
Player discontent within the player ranks could be seen easily now. Farrelly / McCabe incident during the Nigerian game saw more player tension to Pauw in full effect. The senior player leadership had no confidence in Pauw who was defiant until the end.
The World Cup review was lengthy by the FAI. Does it have taken that long? FAI representatives were within the squad and could see the developing tensions unfold. The FAI review would have seen awkward discussions on the training facilities chosen initially by the organisation. FIFA needed to step in to secure an upgrade.
Pauw was not renewed. The manager defiant until the end and accused the FAI of not backing her early in 2023 when contract discussions were supposed to be finalised. Pauw has to be credited for taking the side to the World Cup, a major achievement. The players may have had their issues but Pauw’s defensive stability mantra set the platform for this tournament qualification. The end justifies the means!
The general sports media were sympathetic to Vera Pauw’s departure. Pauw created a good rapport with the Irish media during her tenure.
The senior players though felt that they needed to provide their side of the story given the FAI press release ambiguity on the exit.
Step forward Diane Caldwell to provide the pitch from the player’s side before the Nations League. The criticism was far reaching. The players completely at odds with Pauw in terms of team and player preparation, style of play and tactical nous.
There was no room for ambiguity. The senior player leadership within the squad had enough of Vera Pauw. The non-committal responses from the players about Pauw in Australia now made perfect sense. FAI now in a bind to secure an interim manager who would secure immediate respect.
Eileen Gleeson’s coaching resume is excellent. Her vast experience coaching in Ireland (club and country) and Scotland (Glasgow) plus that she was already employed by the FAI was a no brainer. Her backroom staff also saw experience in the ranks. Emma Byrne and Colin Healy leading a backroom staff who have seen it and done it as players.
The Nations League fixtures were ideal for the side. It represented an opportunity for Eileen Gleeson and the team to evolve the game plan and passing capability. Tyler Toland was immediately called into the squad by Gleeson who was a key foe of Vera Pauw.
Northern Ireland, Hungary and Albania opposition were ideal to test and experiment the new game plan. Mistakes were made with the ball and in transition but the opposition not of the quality to fully punish those errors.
The group was quite routine as the Republic of Ireland were head and shoulders ahead of their group opposition.
Goals followed for the rest of the year starting with the 3-0 win over Northern Ireland at the Aviva. Twenty goals scored during the Nations League campaign with Carusa enjoying more service and goals in the process.
2024 will be the true acid test of the side’s progression. The side have quality players down the spine of the team. Denise O’Sullivan and Katie McCabe are exceptional players but the rest of the squad have evolved in their skill set this year given this year’s fixture list.
Eileen Gleeson was the obvious replacement for Vera Pauw once the Nations League campaign had concluded. The camp was in harmony. The true test for Eileen Gleeson and team now starts. The Ireland soccer public will now be keen to see how the side compete against the elite nations. An exciting 2024 awaits!