Amber warning: Republic of Ireland star Barrett on how revitalised squad’s ‘tightest we’ve ever been’ ahead of World Cup play-off with Scotland

Ireland forward Amber Barrett took time out from preparing for tonight’s Battle of the Celts to tell Ruby Malone about their remarkable turnaround in results, inspirational manager Pauw’s positive influence and the togetherness she’s fostered that has the Girls in Green believing they can reach their first major tournament.

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As the final whistle blew on the Republic of Ireland’s 11-0 win over Georgia at Tallaght Stadium last November, Amber Barrett knew the stunning triumph would be lauded for more than entering the history books.

The record-breaking victory for a senior Irish team (men’s or women’s) was a momentous occasion for women’s football in Ireland, sparking belief and serving as a warning to the other teams in Group A of the 2023 Women’s World Cup qualifiers: we’re here and ready to show what our little island is made of. But it also marked something even more significant: the culmination of two years of progress under manager Vera Pauw.

Forward Barrett was subbed on in the 75th minute of the game and slotted home the record-breaking 10th goal less than 15 minutes later.

“Personally, it was one of the best moments I’ve had in football. It’s one of the best, if not the best, atmospheres I’ve experienced at a game, full stop — men’s or women’s. The noise that day was just excellent,” she told me.

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“To be part of breaking a record is always great regardless, but I was obviously delighted it was me personally. It also just hammered home to the rest of the group that Ireland mean business and that’s one of the reasons we are in the place we are now.”

Fast forward almost a year, and where they are now is a good place to be. The Girls in Green are preparing for a final World Cup qualifying play-off match against Scotland tonight, having made it through the group stages with only one defeat. This came in the form of a 1-0 loss against Sweden — ranked third in the Fifa world rankings – last October. Their only other defeat in the last 12 months was in the semi-finals of the Pinatar Cup this April, when a much-rotated squad was narrowly beaten by Russia.

Speaking to Barrett, who signed for Frauen Bundesliga side Turbine Potsdam this summer, it’s clear that she is enjoying the positivity and excitement around the Irish camp, whilst remaining mindful of their journey to this point.

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“Last year, we went into the game against Australia [referring to last September’s 3-2 friendly win] off the back of seven defeats and there was definitely a sense of pressure, as we were then going into the World Cup campaign a few weeks later. Winning the Australia game was a huge catalyst for us – it was such a good result,” she said.

“When the team are doing well and you’re competing for opportunities — whether it be trophies, a promotion or play-off places — it’s a great place to be. The mood’s always good and people are focused, whereas, when you’re on the back of so many defeats, it can be quite a sombre place to be, like there’s a kind of heaviness. But we believe in ourselves. We know what we’re capable of and everybody’s in on that — not just the players, but all the staff as well. It’s a really, really great environment to be in.”

Pauw was appointed in September 2019, two years after Barrett made her debut for the senior team, and changed the mindset. Previously, the Dutch boss had coached top women’s teams (such the Netherlands, Russia and Houston Dash), played professionally and had been the technical director of women’s football in Scotland. She therefore came into the Irish team with a wealth of experience and knowledge.

The fact that Pauw has improved the Girls in Green over her three years as manager is undeniable. During the 2019 Women’s World Cup qualifiers (played in 2017 and 2018 before she was appointed), they scored just 10 goals, conceded six and failed to make it out of the group stages. This time around, they’ve netted 26 goals, only conceded four and finished just five points behind group leaders Sweden.

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Pauw has that impressive ability to ensure her team produces well-balanced, unified performances – Ireland can be risk-averse and defend resolutely, but they also know how to utilise star players, such as Katie McCabe and Denise O’Sullivan, and seize their chances when they come. There’s no doubt that she is a talented coach and tactician.

Barrett, however, believes that the progress the team have made under Pauw isn’t solely down to her technical coaching expertise – it’s much more than that.

“She doesn’t allow any negativity to creep in. Straight away, she stomps it out,” said Barrett. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a team that’s so tight knit — not just players, but the staff too. It’s an environment where everybody just wants the best for the person beside them. That’s what the biggest thing is — there’s that togetherness. We’ve been through a lot collectively as players.

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“I know every team will say that, but even in the process of losing those seven games, we never lost that togetherness. We were going through that difficult time, but we were still in it together. We just needed something to fall our way, then the rest came with it. And I think that’s to do with the atmosphere that Vera’s created here.”

When chatting with Barrett about the positive atmosphere around the team, it became clear that last November’s win over Georgia, who they also thrashed 9-0 in June, marked more than the progression of the team under Pauw: the country’s shifting opinion on women’s football in Ireland and the importance of the Irish fanbase.

“It was almost overwhelming to an extent, because it was the first game that I felt we’d completely moved on from Covid too. We’ve always been so close to our fanbase, so it was difficult for us when we had nearly a year-and-a-half of games where you couldn’t go near anybody.”

The behind-closed-doors rule implemented for sporting events throughout the worst stages of the pandemic was particularly devastating for women’s football. The game had just started to gain real visibility and was seeing record attendances when Covid-19 hit. Tottenham set a new Women’s Super League record of 38,262 in November 2019, just four months before the country went into lockdown. This record wasn’t beaten until the recent women’s North London derby at the Emirates – almost a full three years later.

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The impact on the Republic of Ireland women’s team was just as detrimental. In fact, Barrett believes the empty stands were even more damaging to their performances and confidence, than for most.

“When we went through that difficult period of losing so many games, one of the main reasons I put it down to is the fact that fans weren’t able to attend our home games,” she said. “When teams come here, they aren’t just playing against 11 players on the pitch, they’re playing against the crowd as well. Of course, other teams were in the same position, but you just can’t beat an Irish crowd. Without the fans during Covid, it felt like we’d nearly lost a player.”

With the play-off match tonight being played in Scotland, Ireland will be without their usual home crowd. However, they’ll be hoping the travelling fans will bring the Irish charm and act as their ‘12th woman’. There’s no doubt Ireland making it to their first ever Women’s World Cup would have a transcendent impact on the country’s opinions of women’s football and as a result, the opportunities for young girls interested in playing the sport.

“In the next few years, we’ll maybe look back and see that we were a big influence for the change of things. Obviously getting to a World Cup would really hammer it home,” she said. “People would really have to sit up and say, ‘Right, we need to give every young girl and boy the best opportunity to be whatever they want to be’. So that it’s not a case of, they could have been a really good player but didn’t have the facilities, the opportunities, or the chances that other girls or boys have had.”

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The Irish players reported to camp at the FAI National Training Centre last Tuesday and began daily preparations for the crucial play-off match, before boarding a flight to Glasgow on Sunday evening. They will take on Scotland tonight at Hampden Park — two Celtic nations battling it out for a coveted spot in the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup. The two sides last met in a friendly in July 2017 — pre-Barrett and pre-Pauw — where Ireland suffered a narrow 1-0 defeat, courtesy of a last-minute header from Christie Murray.

However, it’s not quite as simple as the team that wins, goes to the World Cup. For Ireland, one of three things will happen: they either make it to their first World Cup, they go to a play-off tournament next spring where they can compete again for a spot at the tournament, or they lose and are out of the running. The set-up is so convoluted that even Pauw herself seems flummoxed. Check out the handy Irish Times ‘explainer’ she shared on her Twitter if you’re still confused.

As the Irish players arrived at camp two days before Scotland beat Austria in the first-round play-off game, they watched together as their opponents battled out the win.

“We had a wee bit of craic and just wanted to watch a good game. But when the game had finished, the focus switched quickly and you could feel the change, because it was like, right, we now know. We know what’s in front of us,” said Amber.

And now that they do know, the team are fully focused on the challenge ahead. Pauw’s management skills aren’t the only lethal weapon they can utilise either – their manager will also have the insider info on the opposition after her time working with the Scottish national team. One thing is for sure, the Girls in Green aren’t ready to come down from this high. They’re full of self-belief going into tonight’s match and are ready to make history all over again.

You can follow Ruby on Twitter @RubyGMalone

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