NI rally to claim opening day win

Jul 24, 2023 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

Report by Steven Boucher

Northern Ireland 4

Shamrock Rovers 1

This 4:30pm kickoff at the Diamond in Rathcoole had a big game feel about it, as a good sized crowd arrived to cheer on the Northern Ireland squad in the Girls Premier section. Their opponents – Shamrock Rovers of Dublin.

The game got off to a fast paced start, as both teams sought to take the ascendancy early. It was the home team who fired the first shot across the bow, though, when Niamh Hassan’s shot from left wing was gathered safely by Laura Fanning in the Shamrock net. And soon, Northern Ireland had another chance to test, after Sophie Kelly Bradley won a free kick on the left of the box, but Jessica McGuinness’ attempt went wide.

Shamrock Rovers were showing just as much determination and desire as their opposition, however, refusing to roll over, with Amelia Landers, Sophie Byrne and Ciara Milton crafting very tidy combinations, and breaking through the Northern Ireland lines. Determined not just to make up the numbers, they were playing the better football. Soon, Milton broke into the box, and had a strong shout for a penalty, but only gained a corner. The subsequent ball into the box fell to Milton, but despite her quick feet she couldn’t manage to get a clear shot away.

Going the other way, NI striker Gracie Conway was doing her best to get on the ball and spark an attack, nearly playing in Kayli Ann Clayton, but Shamrock were strong in defence. Indeed, Shamrock looked the more dangerous side, Sophie Byrne drawing a good tackle from NI right back Caitlin Carlisle, and soon their threat told. Stunning the home fans, Della Cowper-Gray stole the ball from the Northern Ireland midfield, used some quick feet to create some space, and hit a strong early shot that keeper Abbie Smith had no chance at. 1-0 to the defiant visitors.

Northern Ireland looked for an immediate reply, Hassan quickly having a pair of strikes on goal, the first gathered safely by Fanning, the second stinging the palms but gathered at the second attempt. Bradley had her own attempt a minute later, also gathered by the busy Fanning.

The game soon became a little scrappy, with neither team giving an inch to their opponents. Tackles were strong but fair, and the game was played in a good spirit throughout. Dominance, though, was hard to come by, as were clear chances. Bradley had another cross-cum-shot drift harmlessly wide, and striker Conway was dropping deeper to try to be more involved. Shamrock, meanwhile, stuck to their guns, continuing to play out from the back, and showing composure against the high press. Left back Amelia Landers was particularly strong in defence for the Irish side.

Just two minutes into the second half the Rovers’ bar was rattled by a powerful free kick from Anastasija Stanyte all the way from the halfway line. Unfortunately the woodwork denied what would have been a special equalizer. A scrappy period followed, but Northern Ireland captain Darcie McNeill was working hard in midfield to get a grip on the ball and move her side forward.

At half time Northern Ireland coach Danielle McDowell-Tuffey told her team to be more aggressive in their press and attack, to have more belief in their ability and not to be hesitant, and they started to move through the gears as the half went on. A powerful shot from Conway sailed just wide of the post, but gave a glimpse of what the forward could do.

In the 47th minute, McDowell-Tuffey looked to her bench to give her team further impetus, and it proved a masterstroke. Barely 30 seconds after entering the fray, Lucy Kelly scored a quality equalizer, picking the ball up outside the box, moving quickly toward goal and unleashing a rocket shot past Fanning, much to the delight of her father standing next to me on the sideline.

In what proved, perhaps, to be a definitive moment in the outcome of the game, we saw the unfortunate side of contact sport when Rovers’ Robyn Gleeson went down with a nasty looking ankle injury. Credit to the Northern Ireland physio, who showed no hesitation in helping the injured player. Unfortunately for Shamrock coach Keith Coffey, the decision to bring on all of his substitutes at half time left his side with no replacement for Gleeson. They would have to play almost a third of the tie a player down.

This allowed Northern Ireland to have a bit more time on the ball, McNeill starting to pull the strings and feed her attacking players. Hassan, Bernie Ferreira, Conway all looked to get the ball goalward, met only by stubborn Shamrock defense. On 61 minutes, though, Northern Ireland finally found a crack, with a cross from Ferreira finding Conway at the back post, who this time made no mistake with another powerful shot this time hitting the back of the net.

The pressure kept mounting for the team from Dublin, but to their credit they kept trying to play their neat and tidy football, Cowper-Gray doing well to get to the bye-line and pull back a dangerous cross, unfortunately with no one able to get on the end of it. Hassan, Conway and McNeill, meanwhile, all had attempts at the Rovers’ goal with no success.

With time ticking away, Northern Ireland played a quick short corner, Hassan hitting a powerful shot that was parried only into the path of Stanyte who made no mistake to give Northern Ireland a two-goal lead and almost certainly the win. Soon after, Conway hit another of her trademark rockets from distance to score a fourth, adding gloss to the scoreline.

Full time – Northern Ireland 4-1 Shamrock Rovers

A scoreline that probably flatters the hosts, this was a very entertaining game for all in attendance. Shamrock coach Keith Coffey felt proud of the performance after the game – “We talked before the game about maybe dropping off against the international sides, but just before the game we said let’s have a go. I think that first half speaks for itself, it was absolutely fantastic.”

Northern Ireland coach Danielle McDowell-Tuffey, meanwhile, was pleased with the second half response from her side. “I’m really pleased with the reaction, especially in the second half. I thought we started off slowly. There were a few nerves in the team, and it showed in the first 15-20 minutes of the game. But we rallied at half time.” On the impact of the substitutes she said, “As a coach I love that from my players. When a player goes out and sticks one in after probably 30 seconds it’s giving me something to think about. We’ve got a quality squad, we’ve got to utilise them all throughout the week.”