** Irish striker Leanne Kiernan. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Former Shelbourne striker Leanne Kiernan admits Friday’s international away to Ukraine is ‘like a cup final’ as they seek to wrap up second place in their European Championships qualifying group.
The West Ham sharpshooter has established herself as a regular in the top tier of English football after making the move across the Irish Sea shortly after her 19th birthday.
Now 21, she has the opportunity to make history if Vera Pauw’s side can become the first side to qualify for a major senior international tournament.
“It’s like a cup final for us. We know how much this game means to Ireland and the history behind it,” Kiernan said.
“When you look at Ireland’s history, we’ve never qualified for a tournament before and this is probably our best chance.
“Every one of the girls are on-board with that and we realise what’s to lose so we’re really going for it.”
Defeat in Germany last month all but ruled out first place for Vera Pauw’s side but they still have a chance of automatic qualification as one of the best three runners-up.
Failing that, a play-off against one of five other runners-up will stand between the Girls in Green and the finals in England next summer, but it’s easier said than done against a solid Ukraine side.
With the nation’s spirits still diminished following the senior men’s penalty shoot-out defeat to Slovakia in their own play-off earlier this month, Kiernan is aware of the opportunity at hand.
“We know how much this means to the country as we could make history by qualifying. I was a bit jealous of the West Ham players going off to the World Cup when we weren’t going.
“There was massive hype behind Scotland qualifying for the first time and they actually went on to do quite well.
“But, listen, that’s what I had to deal with. Now look where we are, having a great chance to get to the Euros.”
Pauw warned last week that she felt the Ukrainians underestimated Ireland when they met for the first time in Tallaght last October, Pauw’s first game in charge.
Ireland raced into a two-goal lead through Katie McCabe and Rianna Jarrett but were pegged back before half-time, only for an own goal early in the second half to give Ireland a 3-2 win.
“We’re a better team now. We have more players abroad now in some of the best leagues in the world and we’re pretty prepped this time.
“If they under-estimate us then hopefully we can show them why they shouldn’t under-estimate us.”