IT WASN’T quite so straight-forward as their previous victories in Group 4, but Scotland’s win against Northern Ireland at Fir Park last night was just as important.
An early goal by Jane Ross, and a late one by Jennifer Beattie, ensured that their attempt to qualify for the 2015 Women’s World Cup continued without a flaw.
On the road to Canada, Anna Signeul’s side have a 100 per cent record, thanks also to thumping victories against the Faroe Islands and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but they had to work harder for the points here. Despite having complete control, and creating enough chances to win several matches, they did not easily break down a stubborn and well-organised Northern Ireland defence. Only when Beattie drove in a second goal with 12 minutes left were they able to breathe easy. As they head off for their next match, in Poland on Thursday, they sit top of their group, three points clear of Sweden, the favourites, who narrowly beat Bosnia- Herzegovina earlier in the day.
Scotland could, and should, have made it easier for themselves, but a win is a win, as Signeul acknowledged later. “Northern Ireland don’t concede many goals,” she said. “In their last qualifying campaign, they never lost more than two goals in a game so we knew they would be hard to break down. We had 26 chances and we should have scored more, but the goalkeeper was very good.
“We’re happy to have nine points after three games. We go into the Poland game with confidence. Of course you want to play like we played against Bosnia all the time, but we are not that good yet. We have that ambition.”
A crowd of 1,580 filed into Fir Park last night, but this was not an occasion on which to measure the popularity of women’s football in Scotland. While they were charging only £5 at the gate (£2 for children), the 5.30 kick-off was less than attractive, and a cold, dirty night in Mother- well served as a further deterrent. So powerfully did the wind and rain swirl about the stadium that those in the front rows were soon scurrying up the gangways for shelter.
Signeul said that her team had played too many long balls during a first half that had got off to a flyer. After just three minutes, they were ahead, thanks to a poor clearance by Emma Higgins, the Northern Ireland goalkeeper, who succeeded only in finding Kim Little.
The Arsenal player’s first touch sent the ball back behind the visitors’ defence, who watched as Ross slotted it in off Higgins’ legs.
It looked as though another avalanche of goals was imminent but it never materialised.
Scotland controlled the first half all right, but Northern Ireland’s defence was up to the task. Apart from a header by Rachel Corsie that drifted over, and a low shot by Ross, the Scots created little in their opponents’ penalty area.
Gemma Fay, the Scotland keeper who had been presented with a commemorative gift before kick-off as recognition of her service to the national side, has had busier nights. Apart from Sarah McFadden’s first-half header that drifted by the upright, there was little to concern her.
But as long as Scotland led by only one, there was cause for anxiety. They needed another goal, which is why they upped their game in the second half. Playing with more urgency, they nearly doubled their lead when Suzanne Lappin volleyed past the post after a cross by Corsie.Frankie Brown almost scored by mistake when her high ball to the back post threatened to catch out Higgins, but the goalkeeper recovered well to tip it over the bar.
Northern Ireland had a big, physical defence, but they also had a sprightly goalkeeper, who was quick off her line. Jane Ross discovered as much when she raced clear of the back four, only to be denied by the advancing Higgins.
Megan Sneddon dipped a shot over the bar as Scotland continued to press, but it was only with 12 minutes left that they were able to relax. Beattie controlled Little’s corner, albeit at the second attempt, before driving a low, right-foot shot past Higgins.