NI women's manager Kenny Shiels stays positive about Ukraine Euro play-off
IF attention to detail is enough to make a difference on the pitch then Northern Ireland women have a great shot against Ukraine in their two-legged play-off for Euro 2022.
"I even know the manager's middle name", claimed NI manager Kenny Shiels. The Maghera man didn't divulge it, and you never quite know if he's serious or not, but he's certainly inspirational.
Despite a host of injuries and preparation problems ahead of Friday's first leg in the "middle of nowhere" setting of Kovalivka, Shiels exuded positivity:
"We have gone over reams of stuff. If they have prepared with more detail than us I would be astonished.
"All you can do is educate the girls on how the other team play, how we play against them, with and without the ball.
"We've done everything you can possibly think of. We've got bibs in Ukraine colours, even the corresponding numbers to replicate how they will line out – 17, their attacking midfield player [Daryna Apanaschchenko] who has scored so many goals for them.
"We've done penalty shoot-outs – you name it, we have done it. I even know the manager's middle name.
"We've done that because most of the important preparation has been taken away from us, in terms of match conditioning."
Shiels has been unhappy that Covid regulations meant his players couldn't play their usual training matches against club youth teams.
Northern Ireland did get an away friendly against England in February – and Shiels even put a positive spin on that 6-0 defeat:
"We played England with half of our outfield team missing. Their commentators kept saying 'England haven't played for a year' – yeah, but their players were playing twice a week in the Women's Super League.
"We didn't have match fitness, were facing a gale force wind in the first half, couldn't get up the pitch, and they were bang average, believe me, England were bang average.
"If only we'd got them when we were more conditioned… We wouldn't have beaten them but we'd have got so much closer. Tactically we were better than them…"
Self-belief is all very well, but Shiels does temper it with realism as he considers the challenge of taking on a team ranked 24th in the world, with his own charges having climbed just inside the top 50:
"They're a tough opponent with their player pool, their population of 44 million. We are very much an underdog.
"They qualified [for this play-off] at the expense of the Republic of Ireland, who have got fantastic players – and Ukraine turned them over. That speaks volumes about the Ukrainian players.
"We do talk ourselves down at times. Northern Ireland like to be underdogs because we can surprise bigger nations. But you also have to have honesty and their coefficient tells you how far they are ahead of us. They beat us 4-0 last year in Spain [in the Pinatar Cup tournament]…
"All the signs of 'David v Goliath' are there and we have to deal with a very difficult opponent."
The task is made tougher because of many absentees, but Shiels hopes they will serve as inspiration:
"We have seven players out, five of them with operations, for these important games – but the season isn't over if we can win this play-off. We have something to work towards when they will be fit next year.
"We want to qualify for Demi Vance, Caragh Hamilton, Megan Bell, Lauren Wade, Caitlin McGuinness, Abbie Magee, Rachel Newborough.
"Wouldn't it be brilliant if, when they came back, they were straight into the finals?"
Getting to England next year will be hard, but Shiels believes in his players: "I can't be confident or cocky – we're not as good as them, we know that. But there are elements in our preparation where we might be able to get an edge on them and we know we have to do that.
"It's going to be mighty tough, but our girls will play 'til they drop, they are fantastic."
Even with their depleted resources, Shiels insists his players will be trying to bring a lead back to the second leg at Seaview next Thursday:
"We want to take it by the scruff of the neck and go and try to win the match. If we go there, sit back and try to defend – that's not us.
"We have taken that [defensive] mentality way from the players and they have contributed to thinking 'We can beat anybody'."