Brendan Cossan: Pauw's departure as Ireland boss no surprise after World Cup fall-out
IT wasn’t a sacking – but it felt like one as Vera Pauw’s contract as Republic of Ireland senior women’s team manager wasn’t renewed after a six-hour meeting of the FAI board on Tuesday night.
In truth, the news didn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Probably not even to Pauw herself who acted like a manager that had one foot across the exit door at the end of Ireland’s first-ever appearance at a World Cup finals last month.
Did she deserve another contract having spent four years in the role?
On the face of it, yes.
Drill down a little and you can see why she's no longer Ireland manager and has been replaced by interim boss Eileen Gleeson, who is FAI Head of Women and Girls' Football.
Pauw's supporters will rightly claim that the Dutch woman guided the Irish to their first ever major finals. And when they arrived in Australia, they played above themselves in each of their games and were unlucky not to advance to the knock-out stages.
They were drawn in the proverbial ‘Group of Death too: co-hosts Australia, Olympic champions Canada and Nigeria who are currently one of Africa’s powerhouses.
Pauw’s team left the World Cup stage with their reputation significantly enhanced. Surely an improved contract would be placed in front of her when the squad returned home.
Sadly, for Pauw, things were never going to be as straightforward as that.
On the eve of the World Cup finals in Australia, The Athletic – a subscription-based sports website – revisited her controversial time in charge of Houston Dash where she was alleged to have been too controlling of the players and was accused of body-shaming another.
Pauw has vehemently denied the anonymous allegations. But the timing of the article by The Athletic – to which the Dutch woman contributed – couldn’t have been worse for her and the Irish team.
Ahead of their World Cup send-off game against France in Tallaght, Pauw said: “You can’t defend yourself against a lie,” adding that she would consider legally challenging the allegations made against her.
Contract extension talks with the FAI had already stalled at that point.
Whether the allegations emanating from Houston Dash were true or false, they were making too much noise for the FAI's liking.
Pauw was joined at that pre-match press conference in Tallaght Stadium by captain Katie McCabe.
It was excruciating from start to finish. Clearly, there was no love lost between manager and captain.
Asked if the squad was content with how her manager had defended herself from the damaging allegations, McCabe’s answer said everything you needed to know about their relationship.
“I can't answer for each and every player,” said McCabe. “Of course, Vera has a style of management that we're used to now over the last two years.
“We’ve argued with each other, of course. You're never going to get on 100 per cent with your manager at times.
“She pushes me - and I push her. In my opinion, and from my personal relationship with Vera, of course, we've clashed many a times but we’re always professional enough to make sure we are fully focused for the team.
“We know both of our hearts are in the right place in terms of what works best for the Ireland women’s national team going forward. And again, of course the article’s timing is not great, but our full focus will be France tomorrow and then going into Colombia next week and then obviously kicking off our first ever World Cup.”
Before Pauw left for Australia with the Republic of Ireland squad, it felt like this would be her last dance with a country she had genuine affection for.
Scrape the surface of the Irish camp and there was discord in virtually every corner.
When asked in press conferences during the finals, Pauw couldn’t buy a reference from any of her established players and there was much consternation among them over how the squad was selected.
You didn’t have to be a body language expert to reach the conclusion that the Irish players were simply tolerating their manager until the end of the tournament.
From the get-go, there seemed to be a power struggle between Pauw and McCabe.
The dynamic Arsenal player was one of Ireland’s best performers in Australia - but she often left a gaping hole at left-back because she was so committed to attack.
It cost Ireland dearly against Australia and Canada.
Tactically speaking, Pauw found herself in terrain many international managers find themselves in. What got the team to a major tournament didn’t necessarily serve them well when they got there.
Pauw held out for a draw with Australia in their opening game – and the Irish deserved at least a share of the spoils – but were undone by a second half penalty.
Pauw did react in the second game; she changed things up against Canada – and the side played their best football in the first half against the Olympic champions but couldn’t make it translate into the hard currency of more goals and narrowly lost on a 2-1 scoreline.
Denise O’Sullivan – another bright light of this Irish team – was placed further forward in the last group game against Nigeria.
Pauw seemed to have stumbled across a tactical template that was better suited to tournament football.
They earned their first-ever World Cup point with a well-deserved scoreless draw with the Nigerians, but even before the final whistle sounded, trouble was brewing.
During the second half, McCabe gestured to Pauw in the dug-out to make changes.
Never predisposed to subtlety, Pauw effectively threw McCabe under the bus in the post-match press briefing by stating that her captain wanted Sinead Farrelly substituted.
It was the kind of broadside you never come back from. McCabe replied via Twitter with a zipped emoji.
Pauw probably knew her time was up as Ireland manager long before Marc Canham had concluded his report for the FAI on the team’s performance at the World Cup.
At 10.45 on Tuesday night, the FAI press release landed in journalists’ in-boxes informing us of what we already had anticipated.
Pauw was gone. The press release was full of the usual platitudes and it didn’t exactly inform the Irish footballing public as to the reasons the Dutch woman was being let go.
“On behalf of the Football Association of Ireland,” said FAI CEO Jonathan Hill, “we would like to thank Vera for her hard work and commitment over the past four years and wish her well for the future.
“In particular, I wish to acknowledge the role she played in leading Ireland to the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 where our women’s team made history and inspired a nation.
“The future is bright for women and girls’ football and our focus now is building upon the work done by Vera and the historic achievements of our women’s team, which we see as a platform to support the next phase of the journey for the team, and more broadly the development of women and girls’ football in this country.”
Pauw delivered the goods for the Irish women's team by qualifying for the World Cup. Under her guidance, they played above themselves when they got there.
But it still wasn't enough, because when you lose key players in the dressing room, the show's over. It's over for Pauw now as the Irish team prepares for their UEFA Nations League game against Northern Ireland on Saturday September 23.