The silence at full-time in Helsinki was such sweet music for Katie McCabe’s inspirational Irish.
reland moved a tantalising step closer to taking control of a potential play-off spot for the 2023 World Cup finals by defeating their main rivals Finland for that second place.
Megan Connolly’s thunderous first-half free-kick delivered Ireland the perfect reward for an expertly plotted first-half before Denise O’Sullivan’s 56th minute winner cancelled out Adelina Engman’s controversial equaliser.
Engman had fouled Irish captain Katie McCabe, who had to temporarily leave the field injured, but did not return until the Finns had snaffled their leveller.
McCabe remonstrated with the officials but O’Sullivan’s goal meant the Irish gained the fullest retribution thanks to her winner.
Ireland were hanging on at the end with Niamh Fahey called to the rescue more than once but the Finns flagged and Ireland thoroughly deserved the triumph before a small pocket of travelling friends and family in the Olympic Stadium.
Now Ireland will seek to drive on against lower-ranked pair Slovakia and Georgia in fortress Tallaght next month before the definitive return clash with the Finns next year.
They have set the bar now; this must establish the template for this emerging, confident team.
Vera Pauw rewarded last Thursday’s predominantly stolid defensive effort against table-toppers Sweden by giving the same starting eleven the chance to do a little bit more on the ball against less sterner opponents than the classy Swedes.
The Finns raced into a confident start in front of 5,251 mostly locals, forcing a corner after a good switch, which Grace Moloney had to punch clear before the rangy Emmi Alanen lobbed a speculative shot over her bar but their threat was mostly illusory.
Ireland’s first attack had borne little fruit but carried promise, with the roaming Jamie Finn, restored to a midfield three, linking well with Katie McCabe on the left before the former’s cross was diverted to Aine O’Gorman whose shot was blocked, as was Denise O’Sullivan’s moments later after McCabe’s dangerous cross, forcing a first corner for the visitors.
That delivery caused havoc but the bouncing ball wasn’t pounced upon by a lurking green shirt but the Finns were already reeling uncertainly in an unanticipated early onslaught.
As another corner provoked alarm in their harassed back-line, Heather Payne thwacked a thunderous delivery which bounced off the turning Ria Öling’s arm, according to referee Alexandra Collin; protests were understandably minimal.
After a lengthy congress between the free amigos – Megan Connolly, Katie McCabe and Lucy Quinn – Brighton’s Connolly clearly fancied her chances and proved it, arrowing a sharply dipping howitzer which crashed to the net via the bar and the outstretched fist of Spurs’ stopper Tinja-Rikka Korpela.
The opener imbued Ireland with obvious confidence and they enjoyed decent spells of possession with much more consistent passing patterns while also benefiting from a higher block.
Finland’s stars were struggling to shine, former wrestler Emmi Alanen fighting with herself in an anonymous inside left role; when she moved further in, her side began to purr a tad more.
A couple of corners caused a flurry of activity, albeit Natalie Kuikka’s hoicked effort off Connolly was their only product.
However, Linda Sallstrom, a scorer in the 4-1 drubbing here four years ago which scuppered Ireland’s then European Championship hopes, should have done better with a free header from another set-piece midway through the half.
Kuikka then headed over as it seemed more likely that a dead ball, rather than the build-up play preceding it, might prove the only avenue back into the contest; even though they were finding much joy down McCabe’s flank, the final deliveries were poor.
Ireland remained watchful, retaining their shape but mindful of not over-committing lest they cede an over-lap, even if the Finns’ passing inaccuracy minimised that threat.
There was an Irish scare as half-time approached when O’Sullivan, whose tight control had been causing so many problems that Adeline Engman whacked her knee.
O’Sullivan gingerly arose again and Ireland created a half-chance from the free; Lucy Quinn looping a header into the goalie’s grasp from McCabe’s similarly wafted cross.
Ireland were in measured control; not ceding space; not committing too many bodies forward.
An extremely competent first-half display as almost mocked by a trademark defensive howler, as Courtney Brosnan dashed impetuously from her line despite a twin defensive pillar attempting to stem a long ball down the right flank.
As she scrambled back to her line, her relief mounted as Tujia Hyyrynen ignored the unmarked Alanen and blasted over with the last action of a fitful half for the hosts, but one seamlessly fitting into the visitors’ hands.
Almost the first action of the second hinted at potential devastation for Ireland’s chances of maintaining their stability as Engman carried out some Chelsea/Arsenal retribution on McCabe with a nasty follow through.
As McCabe was receiving treatment, devastaton did arrive when an attack down her abandoned flank allowed Hyyrynen to deliver another beautiful delivery which the villainous Engman ushered to the net beyond a flailing Brosnan.
McCabe, echoing John Aldridge’s infamous USA ’94 rant on the touchline against Mexico in another century, railed against the officials as she trooped disconsolately back to the fray after the 52nd minute leveller.
Four minutes later, she was skipping happily as her side regained the lead, sparked by doughty leg-work by O’Gorman to win a ball on the right and composure from Finn to find Heather Payne.
Her cross somehow eluded the flapping Korpela and the onrushing O’Sullivan bundled into both the loose ball and a defender; she only required one to cross the line and now Ireland were in control once more.
Korpela had been feted before the match for winning her 100th cap against Georgia last week – after just ten minutes, it felt like she was in Room 101.
The Finns were much sharper and abrasive though and mounted significant, lengthy pressure and last-ditch tackles from Liverpool captain Niamh Fahey and McCabe prevented a certain goal.
But there were opportunities abegging on the break as the Finns pushed, McCabe seeing her shot saved by Korpela as Ireland attempted to kick for home, like Eamonn Coghlan did here all those years ago in his redemptive 3000m.
McCabe went close again with a rasping low drive as Ireland’s energy, and confidence, remained high.
With 15 minutes left, Lucy Quinn was replaced by Rianna Jarrett as the rain began to slash down in sleets; she was immediately drafted into the barricades as the Finnish sought a storming finish.
In a wildly frantic finale, Fahey had to throw herself to deflect a dangerous flick on from Sallstrom, O’Gorman blocked sub Essie Sainio’s shot and Emma Koivisto got between Quinn and Fahey to head straight at Brosnan.
Payne provided some relief, breaking clear to shoot at Korpela and winning an injury-time corner which was frittered away.
No matter. Ireland held on. Not many without a heart or brain could deny their right to. Now they will seek to drive on. Closer to a World Cup dream at last.
Finland: Tinja-Riikka Korpela; Tuija Hyyrynen, Anna Westerlund, Natalia Kuikka, Emma Koivisto; Adelina Engman, Emmi Alanen, Eveliina Summanen, Ria Öling (Essi Sainio 88); Sanni Franssi, Linda Sällström (Amanda Rantanen 89).
Ireland: Courtney Brosnan; Niamh Fahey, Louise Quinn, Savannah McCarthy; Aine O’Gorman, Megan Connolly, Jamie Finn, Denise O’Sullivan, Katie McCabe; Lucy Quinn (Rianna Jarrett 75), Heather Payne.
Referee: Alexandra Collin (France).