Football/Soccer

McKenna focussed on Austria challenge before pre-birthday visit from England

Northern Ireland's Rebecca McKenna (2) acknowledges supporters after the 2-2 World Cup qualifier against Austria at Seaview last October.

TAKING something from England next Tuesday night would provide Rebecca McKenna with probably "the best birthday present I could ask for" - but first the focus is fully on Austria this Friday.

In truth, all Northern Ireland women's birthdays would come at once if they were to avoid defeat against the English at Windsor Park.

Even McKenna, who only turns 21 next Wednesday, has enough experience to know that Austria are much more beatable opposition, even though that certainly won't be easy.

The Austrians are ranked 21st in the world, and 13th in Europe, with Northern Ireland at 46th and 27th respectively globally and continentally. England, for comparison, are eighth in the world and sixth among Uefa nations.

Still, NI came agonisingly close to overcoming the Austrians at Seaview last October, only conceding a late, late equaliser in a 2-2 draw.

The home team, missing four players from the squad due to Covid protocols, visibly tired in the closing stages, after having battled back brilliantly from being behind at the break to lead 2-1.

However, since then financial backing from Stormont has allowed more players to train full-time with this summers Euros in mind, which has also boosted preparations for this latest round of World Cup qualifiers.

"More of us have gone full-time and those extra training sessions each week are only going to benefit us, that will show in the matches now," says McKenna.

"Even before going full-time we gave everything on the pitch and that's not going to change now, it's only going to get better."

One such is Glasgow City striker Kerry Beattie, who has come into the squad for the injured Sam Kelly, of her former club Glentoran.

The hosts arguably afforded Austria too much respect in the first half at the north Belfast venue last autumn, but superb strikes from Lauren Wade and Demi Vance turned the tie around - and boosted belief further in the NI panel, says McKenna:

"At half-time we knew that if we upped our game they were there for the taking. We were the better side in the second half and were close to getting the three points.

"That showed the team that when we work hard and the determination is there then anything is possible…

"A lot of us felt disappointment because we did have the lead and lost it - but we took the positives from it, we got a draw against a team ranked much higher than us, we took confidence from that.

"We showed we can be the better side, and seeing how well we played can only give us confidence."

Realistically, the visitors probably need a victory in Wiener Neustadt, around an hour south of the Austrian capital, on Friday - or at least they must avoid defeat.

With the two teams level on 13 points, and with both still to welcome England, the likelihood is that this will be the crucial game in the group.

Of course, if NI could somehow stop England's winning machine, which has scored 53 goals and conceded none in their six wins so far, then that would be a miraculous lift.

England is McKenna's home now, specifically Lewes in Sussex, having moved there last summer, from Linfield Ladies and from her hometown of Bangor.

With more than 14,000 tickets already sold for the visit of the English to Belfast next week it's sure to be the biggest game she's ever experienced, and she smiles at the thought of achieving a positive result the night before she turns 21:

"It would probably be the best birthday present I could ask for, it would be a bit surreal. But we'll take both games as they come and hopefully get good results."

This will be only Austria's second home game in the group, having beaten Luxembourg 5-0 just before travelling to Belfast, so they'll be well-placed to boost their goal difference, and will stay in second spot, the play-off place, if they don't lose on Friday.

"It's obviously a massive game," acknowledged McKenna. "They're ranked higher than us so we have to work hard, make sure we take information on board, and get the result."

The next two matches will be replicated at the Euros, with England and Austria also in NI's group there, along with Norway.

Many of the girls in green will be playing for places at Euros, but McKenna insists that won't affect their approach: "You know every time you step on the pitch for your country you have to give your best performance because every shirt is up for grabs. But no matter what, everyone gives 100 per cent for this team, and that's what's got us this far."

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Football/Soccer