Women’s SOCCER PREVIEW -Rep of Ire v Iceland, June 11 & June 15
By Dave Donnelly
Three is the magic number for defender Claire Walsh as the Peamount United centre half looks to make 2021 a year to remember.
Walsh will hope to finish the year with a third successive Women’s National League title as the Peas boast a three-point lead. They blew a two-goal half-time lead to draw with Wexford Youths in Greenogue on Saturday evening – their first dropped points of the season – but remain in a commanding position.
Any disappointment soon dissipated, however, as Walsh packed her bags to travel, along with the rest of the Irish squad, to Reykjavik for a friendly double-header against Iceland.
Ireland face the hosts in the first of two encounters on Friday evening (KO 6pm) before ending their trip with a second game on Tuesday. Walsh earned her third cap for Vera Pauw’s side in a narrow 1-0 defeat to Belgium at Heysel Stadium in April.
The centre-half impressed at the heart of a back three and will hope Pauw continues with the same formation as Ireland prepare to kick off their World Cup qualifying campaign in September. With the experienced duo Louise Quinn (Fiorentina) and Diane Caldwell (NC Courage) well-established, a switch to a back three is the most likely route for anyone looking to break in.
She faces stiff competition from her former Peamount teammate Niamh Farrelly, as well as Liverpool captain Niamh Fahey and Duisburg’s Claire O’Riordan.
Having earned her first cap under interim boss Tom O’Connor away to World Cup winners the United States in 2019, Walsh has been a regular in squads under Pauw.
“I’m really looking forward to it. It’s been a long gap now since the last camp so I can’t wait to get going,” Walsh told the Dublin Gazette.
“I’m happy with my performance and the team performance in general in Belgium. It’s a nice formation, actually.
“I suppose you have a bit more freedom than as a centre half with two, and it’s great to play with girls who are so experienced.”
Walsh is one of eight domestic players in the squad (Shelbourne striker Saoirse Noonan is in line for her debut) and a beneficiary of Eileen Gleeson’s home-based camps.
While the majority of the squad based in the UK, US and Europe benefit from training on a daily basis, home-based players balance jobs with evening training.
“They’re really good sessions and I think they’re important from the home-based players to get an extra session in and play together as often as they can. It’s good to be involved – you’re looking at the top players from across the league and to be training with them is deadly.”
While the April friendlies with Denmark (who boasted UEFA player of the year Pernille Harder) and Belgium yielded narrow defeats against higher-rated opposition, optimism is growing. Ireland only missed out on a play-off for next year’s European Championships thanks to a shock 1-0 loss away to Ukraine in a game they dominated.
Northern Ireland would be the beneficiaries, beating Ukraine in the play-off to reach their first major tournament, an honour that still eludes their counterparts in the 26 counties.
Walsh, who played intercounty GAA for Wicklow before concentrating solely on football, believes the Iceland games are ideal preparation for their bid to reach the World Cup in 2023. Ireland’s group contains two other Nordic countries in Sweden, who reached the quarter-finals in 2019, and Finland, as well as Slovakia and Georgia.
And the double-header with an Iceland side whose players are spread across Europe’s top clubs will serve as a barometer for what’s possible over the next two years.
“We have to aim high. If we want to qualify for a major tournament, these are the sides we need to beat. It’s a really good test for us and to get to play them twice.”
PHOTO CAPTION – Claire Walsh in action against Shelbourne (PHOTOS – Martin Doherty)