Occasion bigger than outcome as NI women host England at Windsor

Northern Ireland during training at Windsor Park ahead of the FIFA Women's World Cup qualifier against England tonight.
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Women’s World Cup qualifier, Uefa Group D: Northern Ireland v England, Windsor Park, 7.55pm tonight, live on BBC2, BBC2NI, and BBC iPlayer)

WE’VE all heard too much about exponential growth and the spread of infection over the past two years. Getting our heads round the fact that millions of positives are actually a negative.

Yet there’s no doubt that women’s football fever is contagious, here in Northern Ireland as well as in England and further afield.

Tonight’s tie is further evidence of the increasing interest, with Windsor Park sold out within the allowed limits, so that 16,000 spectators will be mostly cheering the hosts on against the high-flying group leaders.

England are glamorous in the purely sporting sense – semi-finalists at the last two Women’s World Cups, they host the delayed Euros this summer, when they will again meet Northern Ireland in the group stages.

They’ve also been displaying very fine form in this qualifying campaign, seven up from seven matches, scoring a sparkling 63 goals – and conceding none.

The numbers game is in full effect for England. Their tally so far is the same as Austria (32) and Northern Ireland (31) combined. They have 15 different goal-scorers, with three of those – Beth Mead (12), Ellen White (10), and Ella Toone (8) – each having netted more than NI’s leading markswoman, Rachel Furness (7). Indeed, between them that English trio almost match the tallies of both Austria and Northern Ireland.

Tonight is about the occasion more than the outcome, about the incoming thousands.

An attendance into five figures, for the first time in Northern Ireland women’s history, should ensure that England don’t reach double figures, as they did in all three of their away games so far, all won by 10-0.

Manager Kenny Shiels admitted he’ll have to lift his players after the devastating 3-1 defeat away to Austria on Friday night which effectively ended the dream of reaching the World Cup finals next year.

However, he believes the huge home crowd will help him do that, concluding: “The girls are very down on it, they’re flat at the moment - but they’ll be back up because the atmosphere will give them the motivation to engender a high passion game. I feel they will give a good account of themselves.”

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