Girls In Green put Ireland on the map

When I watch you play football, I’m watching you telling me who you are.

Last night Ireland’s women showed us that they are a force to be reckoned with, long into the future, on and off the field.

Everything you do on a football field tells anyone watching something about you.

Do you try the spectacular when the simple would suffice?

Do you hold on to the ball for too long, or do you hide from it when the pressure is on? Do you conserve your energy for the attacking side or bust your lungs to cover that all-important last yard in defence?

This Irish team told us who they are last night.

They fought and they battled and they backed one another.

They blocked and harried and ran and covered.

They never hid.

And when the time came, Amber Barrett from Donegal, who has spent her fair share of time on the bench and the various lockdowns cut off from her family in Germany, took two touches and slotted the ball home for Creeslough and for Donegal and for Ireland.

Make no mistake, this whole World Cup qualifying campaign was win or bust for these Irish girls. Treated so shamefully for decades, they battled and battled, coming to the brink but never making it to the big dance.

Five years ago they had to publicly shame their own association just to be treated with dignity, never mind generosity, and all the while the clock was ticking.

Women’s football has developed exponentially over the last decade. Players are paid better and more often, facilities have generally improved, and at last we in sports journalism are starting to catch up.

Countries like Spain, Austria and even England have closed the gal to traditional powerhouses like the USA, Germany, Norway and Sweden. In fact, the Nordic nations are in danger of being eclipsed by these newcomers.

Had Ireland missed out again, there’s every likelihood that the train would have left the station, powering on ahead without us. To be among the best you have to play them, as Norway found out to their cost – in recent years they have crushed all the minnows in their path, only to falter when they came up against of equal or greater stature.

Such teams don’t want to play Ireland if Ireland aren’t going to give them the kind of test they will get at a major finals – miss out on the World Cup in 2024 and your friendlies are going to be against Slovenia and Estonia, rather than Sweden and Australia.

International results have an undeniable effect on the value of players too – when it comes to desirability and contract negotiations, an England international is worth much, much more than someone playing for a smaller nation, the kind of nation that doesn’t make it to major finals.

Every one of the players that played for Ireland last night deserves huge credit for getting to the World Cup, and what comes next. But we cannot forget every single woman who went before them who never got to experience what this generation is living.

The pioneers who paved the way for this team should be remembered and lauded and thanked for what they did, because they certainly didn’t receive our gratitude at the time.

The tournament in Australia and New Zealand will be a tough one; there are few enough weak teams at any World Cup, and arguably Ireland might be ranked among them, certainly from a European perspective, but Vera Pau has forged a steely spirit that ensures they can give anyone a game – and on their day, they can win it, too.

To thrive at the World Cup, Ireland will need to be a little more ambitious in attack, especially against teams at our own level, while shutting down the big fish as much as possible, but all that will be planned out in due course.

For now the window is open, and there is a real opportunity to completely shift the paradigm for women in Irish sport.

The route to the Champions League in the women’s game is shorter – investing in a strong Women’s National League could quickly bring returns in terms of participation in the group stages, something that no Irish club has managed on the men’s side.

Young girls now have people to look up to, and they are among the best role models the country has ever had. Feed that desire – give them the content they deserve, let them look in the mirror of this team and see themselves.

We are not going to the World Cup to make up the numbers, but we should not fixate on results alone. This is a great moment for Irish sport, for Irish women and for the Irish nation, in that it shows what can be achieved despite, and not because of, our situation.

We have to seize this moment, and the Girls In Green will be at the forefront of building something new and valuable and lasting that will benefit us all – not just on the field.