Nadene Caldwell part of Northern Ireland Women's earthshaking involvement in Euros

Rachel Daly of England runs with the ball under pressure from Nadene Caldwell of Northern Ireland at St George's Park.

PUTTING trophies on the mantelpiece was Nadene Caldwell's aim; knocking ornaments off her neighbours was the unintended consequence.

Growing up in the shadows of Windsor Park, she recalls with a smile: "I was literally playing in the street. My neighbour probably hated me because I pelted the wall every day.

"She told me years later that her glass ornaments were just smashed every other week!

"I started out just playing street football; your friends were males but I didn't sign for my first team until I was 11 which was Linfield Ladies. They had an academy at Windsor but not playing for a team until you're 11 is pretty much unheard of now."

Her family always backed her, though. "I think it sort of depends who you have around you and that's a given in all aspects of life.

"But I was supported from no age, I was never made to feel like an outcast or whatever with having a football it was always an encouragement. You were always 'That wee girl round there with the ball'.

"So it was pretty much a given that I was supported the whole way through. And my parents definitely gave me all the support in the world and never really pushed me to anything else if it was something that I enjoyed.

"My big brother doesn't play. It was always a joke in the family that my Granda said he had four sons and grandsons but it took a girl in the family to play football. So that was always a bit of a running joke."

Her heroes growing up were mostly male players, midfielders of course: "I've always been in midfield, I don't know why. They say you start moving back as you get older but I'm waiting on that coming.

"Paul Scholes would have been the one, but also [Steven] Gerrard and [Frank] Lampard are a given.

"The only real female one… When I was about 16 or 17 and we were in the Cyprus Cup and Fara Williams would have been a standout one. It was male up until that point."

She's among a squad of role models now, which isn't a scenario she would have anticipated even five years ago, she admits.

She's been around the Northern Ireland senior scene since her teens, from 2008, but had drifted away after a trip to Australia.

Enter Kenny Shiels, who took over as NI women's senior boss in May 2019. "Kenny got involved, he'd come to one of the games at Solitude and saw me play and asked me to come back in. It was an honour to be called back in.

"It's not a given now because the talent has moved forward so much in the country, so I was delighted to get the call and get back involved.

"I remember, we were training at Greenmount and he came in and told us the philosophy and he wanted to play and the girls had been waiting on it for so long. We absorbed it and sucked it all in.

"Every training session we were sponges. It was like going back to when you were in an academy, you wanted to learn everything. The quality he has, everyone who knows him knows he's such a great manager.

"And Dean, obviously as a coach, they're unbelievable, they're a great pair. It was just amazing to get them in and the results have spoken for themselves really."

Indeed, she has been part of an incredible transformation in fortunes: "Women's football has obviously grown, more so in the last sort of two, three years, it's really taken off.

"We're not afraid to say that back then people didn't even know we're playing. We were playing at Mourneview probably in front of 30 people. And that was your family.

"So it's come on leaps and bounds. Selling out Windsor [with 16,000 spectators against England] has been a pivotal moment in the women's game, long may it continue."

Caldwell admits that qualifying for the Euros has happened a lot sooner than she could have foreseen:

"Yeah, I would say so, if we're being realistic, and it's definitely happened… qualifying for a major tournament, I'd say, maybe five, potentially 10 years early.

"If you're looking at how small the nation is and the pool we have to pick from, I'd say we're definitely overachievers."

Yet she is adamant there's no element of luck about their involvement: "We deserve to be in that tournament as much as anyone. We beat Ukraine 4-1 on aggregate [in the play-off], we didn't scrape by, we beat them comfortably. Caldwell herself clinched the 2-0 home victory in the second leg with a sweetly-taken goal.

"So we're going into this tournament, knowing that we fully deserve to be there. Whether that's an experience and a learning curve or whatever, we're up for the challenge, and we're going to embrace it.

"The enjoyment is going to be the main thing. If you're not enjoying it, then there's no point being there. But we're also going to be competitive, we're going to be there to make the country proud.

"It's massive for the country, and we need to embrace it and enjoy it and know we are there for a reason."

The similarities are there with the men's side reaching Euro 2016, although Nadene was 'down under', along with international team-mate Demi Vance:

"I was actually in Australia but I would have loved to have been there, you know the buzz around it was unbelievable. It lifted the country and, and I think the women definitely did that and more.

"It's raised awareness. Years ago, you probably wouldn't have seen any young girl in the street with a football. That's what you see every other block now, so that's encouraging to see, I know that brings a smile to my face when I'm driving down the road.

"We're moving in the right direction and it's really exciting for the country… Seeing the little girls wearing shirts is unbelievable but at our games, it's not just young girls coming, it's young boys and it's families. That's who we are reaching out to.

"Football's for all, so that's a message that we want to put out: come and see us, come and watch us and the Green and White Army will make you proud."

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