• Republic of Ireland sit joint-top of their France 2019 qualifying section
  • In November, they ended the Netherlands’ 11-game winning streak
  • Karen Duggan, the team’s player of the year, speaks to FIFA.com

“I don’t know if I could even put it into words.”

Karen Duggan smiles, as she ponders the question of what a first major tournament would mean to Republic of Ireland’s women. “That is something we’ve all been working towards since we’ve been able to kick a football,” she told FIFA.com. “All I can tell you is that when the final whistle blew against Holland, that was one of the best moments of my life. And that was just one game. So to qualify for a major tournament, I can only imagine how good it would feel.”

‘Just one game’ it may have been, but that match in the Netherlands – a shock 0-0 draw that ended the European champions’ 11-match winning run – carried wider significance. It confirmed that the Irish, who are thriving under Colin Bell – a former UEFA Women’s Champions League winner, and their first full-time coach – will be a force to be reckoned with in FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifying. With three matches played, they are unbeaten and sit perched alongside the Netherlands at the summit of Group 3.

“When you look at big Irish sporting moments in 2017, I think that should figure really highly,” Duggan said of the draw in Nijmegen. “A lot of work went into analysing the Dutch in the build-up and coming up with the right game plan, and Colin got everyone believing in the way we should approach things.

**“I’d say this is the strongest the team has ever been,” Duggan added. “It just seems that things are clicking now. Obviously, Colin coming as our first full-time manager has given us a boost, and he’s brought fantastic experience to the job. Also, the young players who enjoyed success at youth level are now coming of age and becoming mainstays.”

Duggan is full of praise for Bell, the England-born coach who carved out a stellar career in Germany and told FIFA.com last year of his desire to make an immediate impact. “He is the ultimate professional,” said the UCD Waves star. “For us players, it’s about living up to his standards.”

Despite their fine start, the Irish remain outsiders in a section that includes not only the European champions, but Norway – Women’s World Cup regulars and one of just four nations to lift the trophy. But if they need inspiration on how to defy the odds, they need only look to Duggan. The 26-year-old utility player is, after all, her country’s reigning Women’s International Player of the Year, and has achieved this status, despite turning her back on professional contracts and overseas moves.

DUGGAN’S DILEMMAS

  • Should I stay or should I go? While team-mates moved abroad to the English, German, and American top flights, Duggan stayed put with Irish side UCD Waves

    "I love playing in Ireland and feel a commitment to the Women’s National League. I also work for a management consultancy firm and have ambitions there when I hang up my boots. I use my lunch breaks as training opportunities and train with my club in the evenings. There is probably more discipline involved – you need to go to the gym yourself, rather than it being organised for you – but that’s the standard I know I need to reach to continue playing with the professional girls on the team. It’s a challenge I enjoy.”

  • Football or Camogie?

    *Duggan gave up Camogie, the traditional Irish stick-and-ball game in which she won national titles, to pursue her football dreams *

    “I clung on to playing Camogie for as long as I could. But in order to reach the levels we need to under Colin, there’s a need to dedicate yourself 100 per cent to football. And football has always been my top priority. It offers opportunities and experiences that other sports just can’t.”

Duggan and her team-mates will take on Portugal on Thursday in the first part of a friendly double-header, as preparations begin for the resumption of Women’s World Cup qualifying in April.

“After the Holland game, we’ve all been raring to get back together again because we want to keep the momentum going,” she concluded. “We know that there is a major tournament in this team. Everyone realises there is a long way to go before we can start thinking of the World Cup. But we’ll keep plugging away and keep dreaming.”

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