A year is a hell of a long time in football.
For the Republic of Ireland, 2023 began with the nation gazing towards the unexplored terrain of a first Women’s World Cup. By September, the manager who had guided the Girls in Green to the promised land was gone, and a team left weary by in-house friction required a bit of TLC.
In stepped Eileen Gleeson to take charge on an interim basis while the FAI went hunting for a permanent boss, the experienced Dubliner overseeing a historic first appearance at the Aviva Stadium against Northern Ireland to kick off the UEFA Nations League.
Ireland swept past the North and went on to make light work of the group, winning it – and thus sealing promotion to League A – with two games to spare.
They head into tonight’s home clash with Hungary with little to lose and more momentum to gain ahead of the climactic trip to Belfast for an international derby with the North on Tuesday.
“You can improve,” Gleeson said at her pre-match press conference as she firmly played down any suggestions these games are dead rubbers from an Irish point of view.
“Looking at a scoreline is a very reduced way to view a game, but can we win more one v ones, can we get more crosses in the box, can we create more chances, can we deny more crosses at the other end?
“There are lots and lots of details that you can focus on. Do we want to score more goals? Absolutely, and we want to keep clean sheets too. There are lots of ways to measure that.”
Ireland have scored 13 goals and conceded one in their four Nations League games. They have unquestionably played with more adventure, pushing their wide players higher up the field while using Katie McCabe centrally more often, to the benefit in particular of Kyra Carusa, who has four goals in four games having scored twice in her previous 15.
However the calibre of the opponent is a factor too. Albania, Hungary and Northern Ireland are committed yet limited, well below the standard of opposition faced in the build-up to the World Cup [China, the USA twice, France] and at the tournament itself [Australia, Canada, Nigeria].
The real challenge facing this Ireland team will be to implement a more adventurous approach in the spring when the Euro 2025 qualifiers begin.
Who exactly will be managing the team for that mission remains to be seen, though the FAI are set to ordain Pauw’s long-term successor before Christmas.
Gleeson was initially adamant she’d return to her role as the FAI’s head of women’s and girls’ football once her time as caretaker boss was finished. It would be completely understandable if she’s since changed her mind. The players like her, the football has been good and all pre-Nations League targets have been comfortably achieved.
She wouldn’t be drawn on whether she has her hat in the ring but the FAI have said they will have an update on the situation this side of Christmas.
For now, the focus is on giving the supporters a bit of festive cheer.
Hungary were well beaten on their own patch in September, when McCabe, Carusa, Caitlin Hayes and Denise O’Sullivan fired Ireland to a 4-0 victory. But Gleeson isn’t expecting Margret Kratz’s charges to simply sit back and try to keep the score down in Tallaght tonight.
“I’m not too sure they will be in a low block,” she said. “They’ve played fairly similar in all their games throughout the campaign. They’ve been assertive in their press actually and pressed high, with two [up front].
“For us if teams drop off we’ve been working on movements to create space in behind and to create that space and exploit that space. We’ve got a lot of creativity now.
“Like I said, we’ve got really positive and assertive wide players now. We’re using players in different pockets of the pitch then to link the play centrally and also be able to use the wide areas. We’ll be prepared for every eventuality but I do think Hungary will be a little bit more assertive in their starting position when they come out.”
Ever since Diane Caldwell delivered a scathing assessment of Pauw’s tenure, there has been heightened pressure on Ireland to prove they can play a more attractive brand of football.
There may be casualties of this progress.
Niamh Fahey, Claire O’Riordan, Megan Campbell and Leanne Kiernan aren’t in this squad, while the inclusion of Peamount United’s teenage forwards Erin McLaughlin, Ellen Dolan and Freya Healy has squeezed out Amber Barrett.
Barrett is in good form with Standard Liege in the Belgian league, but she continues to slide down the pecking order, having been omitted from the matchday panels for the two wins over Albania.
Gleeson offered a pointed explanation for the Donegal striker’s omission, adding: “The competition is much higher now and we look at a number of factors around what squad combination we want, what game-time, what level they are playing at, what is the performance in those games, so it is not as simplistic as ‘you have always been in the squad so you always will be’, because we have made a number of changes.
“It is not to say that a player who is not in this squad won’t be in the next one. This is the squad we preferred for this camp.”
Whether Gleeson is still a the helm by then or not, it’s clear now the seeds have been sown for this Ireland squad to enter the next phase in its evolution.
Watch Republic of Ireland v Hungary in the UEFA Nations League on Friday from 7pm on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player, follow a live blog on RTÉ.ie/Sport and the RTÉ News app and listen to live commentary on 2fm