Progress and processes. Two words that have been a regular fixture in media interviews since Tanya Oxtoby was appointed as Northern Ireland manager in August.
In what feels like the blink of an eye, her first campaign at the helm has come to an end.
After the highs of the 4-0 win over Albania on Friday, the Nations League ended in disappointing fashion as unbeaten group winners Republic of Ireland ran out 6-1 winners at Windsor Park.
It led Oxtoby to declare the Republic, fresh from their first World Cup and sparked by the talismanic figure that is Katie McCabe, were “two or three years” ahead of her squad.
On the evidence of Tuesday’s game at Windsor Park it was hard to disagree.
In saying that, there has been visible progress, even to those watching from the outside. Oxtoby’s reign started with a 3-0 defeat by the Republic, who were on a high from their World Cup homecoming. It was a disappointing result and highlighted the work to do under their new manager.
That development has been evident throughout the campaign, even if it was in fits and starts for the majority rather than stringing together a 90-minute performance.
That changed with victory in Tirana, where Oxtoby was delighted with the 4-0 win but she was left craving more, knowing the test against the Republic would show how far her and her team have moved on.
That proved to be the case and Northern Ireland frustrated their higher-ranked opponents for 36 minutes but after Lucy Quinn – again a thorn in Oxtoby’s side after her Aviva goal – and Heather Payne scored a quickfire double there was only going to be one winner in Belfast.
The scoreboard was more grim reading than the reverse fixture in Dublin, but there were far more positives in Tuesday’s performance that the outing at the Aviva Stadium back in September.
‘We’ll get better, we’ll learn’
“Immediately, it was a tough one to take for us all,” said NI striker Simone Magill. “But we’re a young squad going through a transition and there are a lot of processes that are being put in place.
“It’s not going to happen overnight and we’re very aware of that.
“We have a young squad, we’ll learn and take so much from that. It’s tough to take and it’s a sucker punch, especially when we concede one and then concede another, that’s the fine margins. We’ll get better at it, we’ll learn.
“We qualified for a major tournament and then they qualified for a major tournament. That’s where we want to be.
“That’s our aim, we want to get back there again. We want to build off that, yes it might take some time to do that and we’re very realistic with that as well.
“We know there is a lot of change happening as well but that is where we want to get back to. I think in time we will.”
Back to those two key words – progress and process. Can the players feel that within the group, rather than them being buzz words to the press?
“Absolutely,” Magill defiantly added. “There is so much change happening and all in a really good way. We have a lot of young kids who we are bringing in who don’t have the experience and they will learn so much from things like tonight.
“We know we have a long way to go and although there is a lot we can learn from it, there are some good things in that we can really build on.
“Especially in some of the other games in the campaign. We are building that way. It’s going to take time and we just need to be patient with that.”
Republic ‘hungry for more’
For the Republic of Ireland, despite their dominance in the Nations League, there is set to be another reset with Eileen Gleeson’s time in the role set to come to an end.
Having previously stated she categorically did not want to the job, her stance has softened but the belief is still that a new face will take the team forward.
After their World Cup success and the murky fall out of Vera Pauw’s departure that followed, there is a feel-good factor back around the Irish team and plenty of promise going forward.
The Republic will now face a step up in opposition after six wins from six in League B. It will be a more ultimate test of their progress by facing high-class opposition in every game.
As captain Katie McCabe said in her pre-match press conference, qualification for major tournaments is now an expectation, not just hope.
“Success brings expectation and we have certainly worked hard to change that narrative,” Arsenal’s McCabe added, who said those who questioned her team’s motivation in Friday’s scrappy 1-0 win over Hungary ironically fuelled their six-goal display.
“I’ve been with the team for eight years now and we were always the underdogs, having to fight for those wins. We are now in a position where we can get on a winning streak and qualify for tournaments.
“We want more of that. We have a massive squad that has a lot of talent in it. We’re hungry for more.
“I’m really looking forward to moving up and seeing how we get on. We always want to test ourselves against the best.”