It's almost a given Northern Ireland can compete with top sides: Sarah McFadden
IT’S fitting that a centre half like Sarah McFadden prefers to be looking forward rather than backwards.
Her positivity brought the only goal of a famous friendly victory over Italy at Seaview on Tuesday night, scoring it herself, as well as doing her traditional job of helping keep a clean sheet.
Yet despite the experienced defender’s delight at defeating a major nation, she insisted that what comes next matters more.
McFadden was part of a NI team that shocked Norway at Mourneview Park in 2011, and accepts that beating Italy ranks close to that, but pointed to a major difference;
"Of course it's away up there, but it's funny because of the expectations now. Whenever we beat Norway we partied all night.
“But to beat Italy… you’ve seen at the end, people were happy but we weren't chanting and celebrating. It's almost a given now that we can compete with these teams and we just have to keep going.
“We’re not looking back, we have to go forward and this is a great platform to build from.”
The Bellaghy woman felt that the victory was a consequence of playing in a first major tournament over the summer:
“I just think off the back of the Euros that we’ve grown as a team. We played those tree big nations in big stadiums, so we knew we could compete with Italy. Seaview is a smaller pitch, so we knew we could press them and they wouldn’t expect that.
“All the memories we have had here against big nations give us a lot of confidence. That’s all we thought about going into this: sell-out crowd, our little home ground, and we knew we’d get a result.”
At the age of 35, McFadden made the bold move to go full-time with her club Durham after this summer’s Euros in England, giving up a teaching job, and feels she is reaping the rewards:
“Absolutely, it’s been brilliant. It’s the little things, like on a Sunday night when I’ve come back from Southampton for an away game, I don’t have to get up at six the next morning to go and teach. It’s more about the recovery and being able to focus on football, it’s been amazing. I’ve had more time with my family, so mentally then you’re a bit fresher, it’s been brilliant.”
NI’s win was all the more impressive given that most players are still part-time, though, up against opponents from Italian giants Juventus and Roma:
“It’s what we’re all about,” said McFadden. “We haven’t really had a result like this for a while, we’ve sort of been there or thereabouts.
“I think it’s what we needed to motivate us and pick us up again because the high of the Euros was incredible, but it’s very hard to get yourselves going again after playing in front of 30,000. We did well against Latvia and Luxembourg with a really minimised squad, to get those two wins.
"We went two years unbeaten, this is the start of it again and we need to make sure we keep winning games, pushing on, and developing the youth below us."
McFadden sees the win over Italy as inspirational to that younger generation, explaining: "Winning makes it even better. You think of the girls who might have come to their first game, they have witnessed Northern Ireland beat Italy. When does that ever happen for any Northern Ireland team?
“You just hope that inspires more girls and we get them into the game. They might say, 'I got into football because I watched Northern Ireland beat Italy'. That's massive and that’s what we want to keep doing."
It wasn’t just the result that stood out, the home display was excellent, as McFadden pointed out: “I’m just really happy with the performance. I think we were brilliant. From the first minute we showed Italy that they weren't here for a kick-around. Every single player was outstanding, so we’re really happy with the outcome.”
Home goalkeeper Jackie Burns only had one serious save to make, keeping out a late header from a corner, and McFadden was thrilled with how they restricted Italy:
“I think we minimised [their threat] really well: kept a good high line, centre mids worked so hard tracking the runners – their movement was brilliant.
“You think, about five or six of them play for Juventus, the other half play for Roma in the Champions League, and we were able to compete with them. Especially in the first half I feel we played the better football, and it’s good that this can bring us so much confidence going into the new year, and that’s what we need.”
Scoring and keeping Italy out contributed to the perfect end to the historic year of 2022, when NI Women went to the Euros – but McFadden always wants more improvement:
“It’s just been incredible, I’ve loved every minute of it. We’re all the same as each other, saying ‘What can we do better next time?’ I’ll be thinking about the two or three times she rolled me, the 20, and what can you do next? That’s the only way we’re going to get better. You can’t just stop, you have to keep improving and move forward.”