Football/Soccer

Laura Rafferty ready to play for NI - or cheer from the Southampton stands

Northern Ireland’s Laura Rafferty challenges Ukraine’s Tamila Khimich during the Women's Euros play-off second leg at Seaview in April 2021.
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker 

DEDICATION, dedication, that’s what you need…For Laura Rafferty, that chant might change to ‘Meditation, meditation…’

The Northern Ireland player will be chill, even if she doesn’t make Kenny Shiels’s 23-strong squad for the Women’s Euros in her native England, and she’ll be there cheering her friends and team-mates along.

Rafferty is in a 24-strong squad for tomorrow evening's friendly against Belgium, but only 23 can go to the Euros. When it’s put to her that she faces a nervous wait to find out if she’s included or not, the laidback 26-year-old replies:

“You could say that, but for me, I’m very positive that whoever Kenny picks will put their best foot forward. You know, I'm a player, but I'm also a massive supporter of Northern Ireland women.

“I've been here for the past 10 years playing with the senior squad and the underage teams, and the fact of the achievement that we've got this far is an honour anyway.

“So, yeah, of course you want to be part of it in terms of being a player, but for me, I'll always be a part of it because I’m Northern Ireland, so and it's for all of us, not just the players.”

Thr daughter of a father from Belfast, all three NI group games, against Norway, Austria, and hosts England will be in Rafferty’s hometown of Southampton, where she's been playing her football this season, and she’s certainly prepared to play in front of full houses:

“Rumour has it that Southampton are doing quite well with their ticket selling so St Mary's is probably going to be packed, which is amazing. The more you do it and you play in front of people and fans, you can focus on the one thing.

“It’s why I do meditation, because you have to be aware when you play football but you also have to focus and those are two opposite ends of the spectrum. So how do you flip that? How are you aware of everything around you? But not too aware?”

She doesn’t just talk that talk - she breaks off mid-sentence, after over-hearing a comment from colleague Rebecca Holloway, and asks with a laugh, having heard her own name: “What? Who talks too much?”

Back in interview mode, she continues her explanation of being in the right mental zone to perform effectively on the pitch:

“How are you aware of everything? - but then also that you can't be too aware of it. So then that's when you’ve got to focus. So we do different things, as footballers to prepare for stuff like that.”

Nothing, however, could prepare her for the emotional impact of achieving qualification. Having suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury which ruled her out of most of the Euros qualifying process, she came off the bench for the first left of the play-off in Ukraine.

She then started the second leg, a 2-0 win which secured an amazing 4-1 aggregate triumph.

How did she greet the final whistle? “Just first of all, I cried. Ukraine at home, obviously Seaview, I played the 90 minutes and after the game it was like I was physically fatigued but I was like emotionally fatigued as well because there was just like so much built up to that game.

“After, it was like so much excitement, the relief kind of. But then like after you know you get together and you look at everyone else and it's like, ‘Right, we've done it’, it's just fantastic.”

Rafferty pays tribute to manager Kenny Shiels for inculcating a culture of positivity:

“Unbelievable. That comes from the people above us, that put us out on the pitch, that comes from Kenny and the coaching staff that attitude to football - that attitude to go out there and if you make a mistake, you make a mistake but what are you gonna do? How are you going to get on the ball?

“He said this one thing a meeting and it stuck with me: ‘You should not fear football. Never fear football. You want to play football.’

“And it's so true. It's what we do every day, we play football, so why would you then go and fear? Ultimately in these games and obviously the Euros that's where the experience comes in.

“How do you put that pressure aside? And how do you perform like you do every day and when you train? Because it's no different than kicking a ball out on the training, it's just the pressure around it and the environment.”

Northern Ireland will be seen as the ‘whipping girls’ of Group A, but Rafferty is ready to take on Europe, if called upon: “I learned a lot from just those play-offs. It's probably good that did happen because that's a massive two games for us.

“It wasn't even over when the first one ended [2-1 win] you couldn't celebrate at all after the first one because you still had the second half to go. So yeah, I think we've been prepared very well.”

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Football/Soccer