Fans can boost Northern Ireland's women at Euro 2022: McFadden
NORTHERN Ireland star Sarah McFadden believes fan power can help the team make a big impression in next year's European Championship finals in England.
McFadden, originally from Bellaghy, is still on a high after playing a key role in Tuesday's historic achievement with Kenny Shiels's side becoming the first Northern Ireland women's football squad to qualify for a major tournament.
The versatile 33-year-old, who plays for Durham Women in the FA Women's Championship, excelled in the 2-0 second leg victory over Ukraine in the Seaview play-off giving the North a richly deserved 4-1 aggregate success.
In France at Euro 2016 the Green and White Army were a dynamic force for the Northern Ireland men's team roaring them into the knockout phase and McFadden feels that type of backing will lift the girls against Europe's big hitters with Shiels's side the lowest ranked of the 16 nations in the finals.
With the Euros scheduled to take place in July 2021 the hope is that by then spectators will be allowed to pack stadiums across England for the tournament. You can bet if that is the case Northern Ireland supporters will be there.
McFadden said: "You saw in 2016 when the fans headed to France it was the most amazing support for the lads and they were able to get out of their group. We have almost picked up the Green and White Army after the lads haven't been doing as well the last little while.
"When we head to England next summer we will probably have more fans than some of the other countries because Northern Ireland will support their own no matter what."
Captain Marissa Callaghan, who scored the opening goal versus Ukraine on Tuesday, and her team-mates are now viewed as inspirational figures to young girls across the country.
Such is the magnitude of their achievement it's as if they have climbed Everest in bedroom slippers. At the start of the Euro campaign they were given no chance of qualification but after winning their final four group matches and the play-off they have hit the big time.
And this despite Shiels's squad being hit with multiple injuries since he was appointed in 2019 and the fact that many of his players hail from part-time Irish League sides. The manager is convinced this is the greatest sporting achievement ever.
McFadden, who returns to her teaching day job next week, added: "This is one of the best moments in my life and I've been married and have a child but this is literally up there with those two moments. It's something we won't realise how amazing it is until we finish playing or until next summer when we get to the Euros.
"Our dreams were never even to go to the Euros. I never ever in my right mind set that as a target because it was so unrealistic for us over the years. A lot of years we were making up the numbers.
"For those little girls now they have seen this it's something amazing for them to aspire to and be able to dream towards. That could be them as well. Or even girls who are 16 or 17, now they have a chance of playing in the Euros next summer so it is a case of working hard and making sure you are ready."
Moving forward the Irish FA want to build on the historic nature of the feat and aim to encourage more girls to play the game. To that end this year they plan to appoint a Director of women's football while Shiels's side will play friendlies at Windsor Park before next year's tournament.
Nadene Caldwell, who grabbed the second goal versus Ukraine in injury time, said: "There's going to be a ripple effect for years to come with us qualifying for the Euros. Women's football in Northern Ireland can push on from here. The whole country was behind us and I would say to any young girl watching that's dreams really do come true."