Football/Soccer

NI women's boss Shiels wants crowd backing to keep moving forward

Northern Ireland's Marissa Callaghan celebrates her goal against Luxembourg on Friday.

2023 Women's World Cup Uefa qualifying Group D: Northern Ireland v Latvia (Windsor Park, 7pm)

"IF we had the Green and White Army behind us, we'd beat America!"

Even the ever ebullient Kenny Shiels was joking when he said that, quickly adding, "I know that's outrageous", but the Northern Ireland women's team manager had a serious point beneath his quip.

Numbers off the pitch are almost as important as those on it for Kenny Shiels, certainly tonight, although he was adamant that they never under-estimate anyone.

Winning is what matters most, but the first competitive senior women's international at Windsor Park for nine years is about more than just the result.

Besides, what happens off the pitch obviously can influence events on it.

"We'd take on anybody if we have the Green and White Army behind us," insists Shiels. "But if they're not, it makes it a little bit more difficult.

"People don't realise how much that means to modern young footballers in terms of motivation and how they feel good about themselves. It would be great if we could get a crowd into Windsor similar to the men's - it would give us more hope, but we'll battle on."

Although 16,000 were allowed in when NI men hosted Switzerland recently, there probably will be a third of that - at best - as the females host Latvia.

Even an attendance of 5,000 "isn't enough" for the ambitious boss, although attendances have been growing. "The fan-base of south Belfast is geared towards a good crowd and I'd like to get a really good crowd. I think we'll get 3- to 5,000…which isn't enough, but it's progress. The better we do, the more people will get attracted to it. Participation numbers in girls' football have grown enormously… That has to continue growing."

So has the senior team.

Shiels could be tempted to aim for an even more eye-catching scoreline than Friday's 4-0 opening qualifier victory over new girls Luxembourg in Larne, although Latvia are ranked 20 places higher than them, albeit only at 102nd in the world.

Latvia finished bottom of their Euro qualifying group, which also included Sweden, Iceland, Slovakia, and Hungary. The Baltic side conceded 39 goals in losing all eight matches - and scored just twice, albeit one of those was against the powerful Swedes, the other in a 2-1 home defeat by the Slovaks.

Latvia actually took the lead at home to Austria on Friday before succumbing 8-1, but Shiels pointed out that four goals came late on after the hosts withdrew three defenders, perhaps with tonight's match in mind.

However, he plans to shuffle his pack for the greater good, not just tonight's outcome:

"We're looking to make a few changes. This camp is about getting some experience to some girls who need it, to win, and to do it in a way which is developmental for the players of the future. Playing at Windsor for their country is part of that experience.

"We don't necessarily pick our best team, or our worst team - we want to pick a team in which some of the younger ones will develop…and that might be at the expense of some of the more experienced.

"The teams that I put on the pitch have to have a certain amount of growth along with some experience. I'd say we're the only team in Europe which adopts that attitude. We have to think of the future and how we can get better.

"Nobody is certain to get on the team…We have to make sure we get the blend right to get a result. We're not about winning 12- or 10-0, even though goal difference would help at the final juncture.

"If we put out our strongest teams in all these matches we would not progress, we would hit a brick wall."

Latvia are unlikely to present such a formidable barrier - and the crowd should see another win for the confident hosts.

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Football/Soccer