NI women training hard for play-off despite lack of games, says Shiels
Waiting to find out their opponents for the Euro 2022 play-off is understood by Northern Ireland's women's team; waiting to find any opponents at all is another problem altogether.
Kenny Shiels's squad have trained intensively – when allowed and able to do so – since finishing second in their qualifying group at the start of December. Yet the nuances of coronavirus regulations and restrictions have meant lots of training but no matches.
"We took action straightaway," said Shiels. "Since the first weekend in December we have trained three or four times a week, apart from that total lockdown period after Christmas and being snowed off once. We must have had 30 sessions, trying to sustain fitness.
"They're not getting games, so they need match conditioning. The girls have been very supportive and dedicated.
"We're classed as elite – but we can't get games. Normally with women's senior football the comparative opponent [physically] would be U16 boys, to have a competitive game.
"In the autumn, we played those teams from Glentoran, Coleraine, Linfield, Ballymena, really competitive games to get the girls conditioned. But we can't have that now, because an U16 is not classed as elite, so that's taken that away from us."
Shiels is hoping to get some games lined up for next month, which is also when Northern Ireland will learn their play-off opposition – the draw on March 5 - for a two-legged tie scheduled to take place in early April.
There are still games to be completed in other groups in order to ascertain the six runners-up heading into three play-off ties, but NI's opponents are likely to be one of the following: Czech Republic, Portugal, Russia, Switzerland, or Ukraine.
As the lowest-ranked team among the contenders, Northern Ireland are already up against it, but their hopes aren't being helped either by injuries and lack of action for even their few players 'over the water' in England and Scotland.
Megan Bell and Demi Vance, both on the long-term injury list, will miss any April games, while although striker Simone Magill is fit again after missing the last two matches, she isn't getting much game-time with Everton. Nor is Chloe McCarron at Birmingham, and Lauren Wade has left Glasgow City.
Shiels stresses that sponsors Electric Ireland "have been very supportive", with their ongoing 'Game Changers' initiatives raising awareness of the women's game:
"People are watching more TV, and the viewing figures were boosted in December when we qualified for the play-off. They've become more aware and interested and we want to build on that again for the play-offs."
Shiels is a much-travelled manager in the men's game, notably leading Kilmarnock to a Scottish League Cup Final triumph over Celtic in 2012. He's also taken charge of Ballymena United, Coleraine, and Derry City among others.
However, since taking on the NI women's role in May 2019 he's been highly impressed by the commitment levels of his charges:
"Many of the girls have worked their through development programmes, but they've been on their own to a certain extent.
"Learning the mental processes, the cognitive elements involved in being a footballer, they've had to do a lot of that themselves.
"One difference I find is the girls' attitude to coaching. In everything we do, they don't give 99 per cent, they give 100 per cent, listening to what we're telling them.
"They've been totally dedicated to that, and I don't see that in the men's game. There's probably more ego on the men's side, because the men's game is more advanced, and that's not being derogatory to the women.
"Men's football is in the fabric of the UK and Ireland for so long. The women are catching up, but how far can they get?
"Men will always have that physical advantage, that is one thing which puts them ahead – but these girls can't give any more, they're very loyal to what they're doing, and I see that more in women than I do in men."
Shiels will delve deeper into the question, 'Is there a difference between coaching girls and boys or women and men?' at a virtual coaching event from 7pm tomorrow night (Thursday).
Hosted by Electric Ireland, this virtual event will explore the differences in approach in coaching females versus males, touching on the barriers experienced from both the players' and the coaches' perspective.
Coaching insights across a range of sports will be offered, providing 'attendees' with helpful hints and tips for improved coaching.
Following a keynote conversation with Shiels there will be a panel discussion, with representatives from female rugby (Neal Johnston, Female Rugby Officer at Ulster Rugby), Tom Causer, Club and Workforce Manager at Northern Ireland Netball, and Gail Redmond, Women's Domestic Manager at the Irish FA Foundation and former head coach of the Glentoran women's team.
Briege Corkery will bring a GAA perspective as one of the most successful female GAA dual players in history, winning 18 All-Ireland medals across Camogie (7) and Football (11) for her home county Cork.
To join the conversation, visit: http://www.gamechangersni.com/ at 7pm tomorrow.
* There may be no international games for the Republic of Ireland Women's Under-17s due to COVID-19 but they are making the most of this period by beginning their coaching journey.
Head Coach James Scott has maintained contact with his squad over the last number of months to track their progress at club level, provide training routines and to host team webinars.
As part of that process, the Football Association of Ireland will provide free places for all of the players on a PDP 1 coaching course, which is the entry point to the Coach Education Pathway.
Assistant Coach Irene Hehir said: "I think it's brilliant that the girls get the opportunity to take a PDP1 at this point in their football careers. They will further their education of the game from another viewpoint while beginning their pathway to possible coaching roles within their clubs.
"The biggest benefit of this is the impact it will have on the future players of the game. Having an international player, no matter what age, to teach them the game at the first level will show the young girls and boys that anything is possible."