Football/Soccer

Nelson's eye on adding to Northern Ireland women's appearance record at Euro 2022

Julie Nelson of Northern Ireland chases Ellen White of England during the recent friendly.

Women's Euro 2022 play-off first leg: Ukraine v Northern Ireland

EVERY cap matters for Northern Ireland defensive stalwart Julie Nelson – and she's hopeful about adding to her tally at next year's Women's Euros.

The 35-year-old quickly corrected a reporter who suggested she had made 113 international appearances – "114, 114" – and agreed that she had men's captain Steven Davis's total in her sights, even though he's on 126 and still playing:

"That's something I would love to aim for. The women's cap record is a lot higher than the men's, so I won't be breaking any British records for that!

"I'm really enjoying my football at the minute and I've no plans to retire. Long may it continue, I love putting on the green jersey."

She should do so again today away to Ukraine in the first leg of a play-off for Euro 2022 in England, with the second leg scheduled for Seaview in Belfast next Tuesday.

Getting past the team which edged out the Republic of Ireland in qualifying will be tough, but it's always tough for Northern Ireland. Seven players are out injured and preparations have been limited, but Nelson shrugs those concerns off:

"There've been a lot of knocks along the way – losing Abbie [Magee] a week before the camp, Lauren [Wade] a few weeks before it, as well as not being able to play friendlies here.

"But we have to try to control the controllables, focus on how we're going to perform. Since we met up on Sunday that's been our main focus.

"We've obviously talked about those players but throughout this campaign we've been missing players the whole way through, different players missing for different reasons. We've definitely done this as a group, it hasn't been the same 11 or even 14 players playing. We know we can go and get this done as a group. We're all gutted for those girls, but we're really together as a group."

Indeed, the delays caused by coronavirus, pushing the tournament back a year, have benefitted Kenny Shiel's squad, she feels:

"We have had more time together. Obviously there were the few months at the first lockdown when nobody was able to do collective training, but we were able to come back together at the end of June and train from then on.

"That definitely helped the group and some of the younger players have had more time to develop than they would have had if Covid hadn't happened.

"The benefit with them being so young is that generally they don't have any fear. They have all improved so much over the past 12 to 18 months as well. No matter who's on the pitch we know they can go out and do the business for us."

Ukraine beat a young NI team 4-0 in a tournament game in Spain last year but Nelson says lessons have been learned:

"They're a strong, physical side, very direct. You don't get to 24 in the world by magic. It's good that we got to play them in Spain last year so we're familiar with their style of play. They should be similar to Belarus, who we played in the qualifying group.

"We've been together for a long time, some of us up to 14 years. When we went down to 10 players out in Belarus we really stuck together and that game epitomised the spirit in the squad."

Despite all her previous matches, these are arguably the most significant, Nelson acknowledges:

"They're right up there, two massive games – but we're trying to look on them as just two more games, rather than emphasise the importance of them.

"Yes, there will be nerves, it would be unnatural if people weren't nervous, but we're just trying to focus on ourselves and how we play."

"It's a fantastic opportunity for us to qualify for a major championship. We're really relishing being in this play-off, especially some of us given the stage of our careers we're at."

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Football/Soccer