No complacency from NI against North Macedonia: McFadden

Sarah McFadden hunting down a Ukraine player in the second leg of the play-off for the Euros.

Fifa Women's World Cup 2023 Uefa qualifying Group D: North Macedonia v Northern Ireland (Petar Milosevski Training Centre, Skopje, 12pm Irish time)

THERE'S often much false modesty from footballers, especially in public exchanges. Yet when Northern Ireland's Sarah McFadden talks about the challenge facing them in North Macedonia this afternoon, you know that the struggle has been real, that she's speaking from experience.

The hosts are ranked 131st in the world, 50th in Europe, with only Andorra below them among Uefa sides; NI are 48th, 27th in Europe, but you believe McFadden when she insists:

"It's not a game we're going to take lightly at all. I've never played an international game that's been easy… We're a team that's been bottom of the world rankings for a long time.

"We've always struggled. I've been in teams beaten by the side ranked 103rd in the world - beaten by Kosovo. Whether it's England, Austria, or North Macedonia, we have the same mindset - for so many years we were used to losing to teams like this.

"I've been part of Northern Irish squads that have been beaten by team in literally their first game in international football so we have no egos, nothing like that. We have to make sure we're at our best because anything is possible in football.

"So that helps us, we're very down-to-earth and we appreciate everything that has come for us. We're a scalp now, we know teams want to beat us."

Last time out Kenny Shiels's side almost shocked Austria at Seaview, the visitors only securing a 2-2 draw with a late leveller.

Northern Ireland would be in second spot, the play-off place, had they held on for a stunning home win but now they're likely to need a win in Austria next April.

However, the full focus is on this double-header against North Macedonia, with the reverse fixture set for Seaview next Monday night, November 29 (7pm kick-off).

The Macedonians have been heavily beaten by England and Austria - 8-0 in Southampton and 6-0 in Skopje respectively - but they did go to Latvia and win 4-1 before succumbing to a 3-2 home defeat against Luxembourg.

NI had the tough task of taking on England at Wembley, holding out for more than an hour before eventually losing 4-0, but McFadden has consigned those games to the past:

"No matter how energy-sapping the games before were, we know that there's a new task ahead. That's what Kenny and Dean [Shiels] have been so good at drilling into us, that every little game is as big as the last one.

"For us, every game gets bigger, so this game is bigger than the last and, hopefully if we can win this one, the next one's bigger, and hopefully we can build momentum.

"We don't even think what's happened in the past…the draw in the last minute. We just enjoy being here and being part of what's happening in Northern Irish football at the minute.

"We just want it to continue because there are a lot of us who won't be here forever. If this is how we finish our careers we want to just get better, keep improving.

"We're always looking forward, always wanting to improve - we're never going to sit on our laurels."

At 34, McFadden is one of the more experienced players, and still playing superbly for NI and her club Durham Women, either in central defence or a defensive midfield role.

She's delighted to still be heavily involved, having helped secure an incredible qualification for thne Euros in England next summer:

"Especially us older girls, we're so lucky that we didn't retire, we've been so lucky to actually be a part of what's happening with women's football. We always think of the ones who came before us, those playing in the 1970s, or those who started out with us - they were our role models, the ones who pushed us on. That's been a massive part of everything we're achieving now.

It's for all of us, the ones that came before us and the ones that definitely will come after us. That's something massive, we want to keep building the next generation, growing women's football. We're so lucky that we can use our faces as platforms to do that and hopefully bring success for Northern Ireland."

Although she's from Bellaghy, her accent is now much more English north-east than south Derry - but NI is still home, especially the international set-up:

"As soon as we leave our clubs we come into an environment that we love, it's like a little family. When we come into camp, no matter who we're playing, it's really lovely to be here."

Skopje will be a test, but McFadden should help guide Northern Ireland through it.

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