NI women's football still aiming to build on the Euro summer of 2022

Northern Ireland's Julie Nelson (hidden) is mobbed by team-mates after scoring NI's first goal at a major tournament, in the summer Euros against Norway.
Northern Ireland's Julie Nelson (hidden) is mobbed by team-mates after scoring NI's first goal at a major tournament, in the summer Euros against Norway.

SEVEN consecutive defeats in an eight-match winless streak. Their only competitive victories coming against two minnows. Yet 2022 was, and always will be, an historic year for Northern Ireland women's football even if they hadn't bounced back with three wins in a row, including taking a big scalp.

Participation in a major tournament for the first time ever, the delayed Euro 2021 in England, remains a remarkable feat.

Defeats in all three matches there hurt the management and players but those were rare moments in recent years of 'the girls in green' merely performing as per realistic expectations; not even under-achieving, just not their regular over-achieving, if that latter phrase isn't a contradiction in terms.

They got back to doing better than hoped for in their last match of the year, a wonderful win over Italy. However, even before the season was capped off on that high, a famous friendly success secured by the most fitting player of all, defensive rock Sarah McFadden, Kenny Shiels's side had shown that they were ready to write more chapters of achievement.

Sure, those competitive wins mentioned were expected, even away, as they'd beaten both Luxembourg and Latvia 4-0 earlier in the campaign.

However, the manner of them was uplifting. Even though they'd known for months that qualification for this year's World Cup was impossible, NI still endeavoured to do their best.

Their attacking options were limited, by the serious knee injury sustained by Simone Magill in the Euro opener and by Rachel Furness stepping away from international football, albeit after an ineffective Euros, while Lauren Wade was also out injured.

Still, the colossus McFadden opened the scoring in Luxembourg and young Rebecca McKenna fired in the winner after the hosts had levelled and threatened a surprise result.

The 3-1 win in Latvia was extremely weird, with all three away goals scored by home players, two of them put into her own net by goalkeeper Enija-Anna Vaivode, who also pushed the ball onto defender Lubina for the other; however, the clincher did come after Caragh Hamilton's shot came back off the post in the last play of the match.

Keeping going right to the last kick sums up this Northern Ireland team.

A couple of images, both in defeat earlier in the year, also exemplified NI Women's attitude, the approach that has led to their improvement under boss Shiels.

The first saw teenager Joely Andrews, brought on with the team trailing 3-0 in a crucial World Cup qualifier away to Austria. The Glentoran star drilled in a consolation goal in the 85th minute but, rather than enjoying the moment, she turned and raced back into her own half for a rapid re-start.

No more goals came, but the message was clear: never give up, never give in, do your best, give your all.

The second moment was much more joyous, although again it arrived with the team 3-0 down. As in Austria, a new dream was dying, with the Euro opener against Norway appearing set to turn into a nightmare. Three goals conceded before the break on a hot evening at the St Mary's Stadium, the Norwegians appeared on course for yet another 6-0 victory over NI, having twice won by that score-line during Euro qualifying.

Instead, Northern Ireland netted early in the second half – and had a squad poll been conducted, the overwhelming choice of scorer would indeed have been veteran centre half Julie Nelson.

The delight at her doing so was evident, making the goal even more meaningful. The fact that she became the oldest ever scorer at a Women's Euros was tribute to her dedication and, yes, professionalism, albeit as an inspiring amateur.

Togetherness is truly a trait of this team.

The support of the Irish Football Association and Stormont to arrange a full-time training camp for the home-based players was extremely beneficial for a side preparing to take on bigger, better-backed nations.

Being based in Southampton for all three matches probably helped the team as boss Shiels ensured a very intense, professional focus, although it lessened the tournament experience somewhat.

Hamilton and Megan Bell were ruled out of the Euros by injury shortly before the tournament and a small talent pool continued to be drained, notably by the loss to injury in the Euro opener of NI's first female professional footballer, Simone Magill. Her talent had already secured a yet-to-be-announced move from Everton to Aston Villa, but she was unable to showcase her skills for long as she was forced off by a cruciate knee ligament injury against Norway.

It was also clear that NI's record goal-scorer, Rachel Furness, was not the driving force she had been for so many seasons. Even so, 'Furny' still provided the assist for Nelson's unforgettable goal and – of course – led the sing-song with the fans after the England match.

That joyous chanting and dancing was entirely appropriate, even after the three losses, marking the end of an incredible journey.

Without Magill and with Furness clearly struggling for full fitness, NI had very little cutting edge, so rarely troubled Austria when they met again, and the central Europeans saw out a fairly comfortable 2-0 win.

Even at full-strength NI would have struggled against an excellent England team, who proved their eventual worth by lifting the trophy. The hosts had thrashed Norway 9-0 in their second outing, and added five more against Shiels's side, but the girls in green – technically the home side so wearing their first choice kit – were not humiliated. England took 40 minutes to open their account, then a burst of four goals either side of half-time did the damage – but NI held out after that apart from a highly unfortunate own goal.

The final whistle marked the end of NI's Euros, and the end of the international road for Ashley Hutton, but the tournament should be a building block rather than a road-block for women's soccer here.

That certainly seemed to be the mindset when matches resumed in ?????, with those away wins to ensure a third place finish and a record points tally of 19 in a World Cup qualifying group.

The home win over Italy, albeit in a friendly, was fully merited, not squeaked out against the odds.

Still, continuing to climb the ladder will be tough. When Shiels took over in May 2019 Northern Ireland were ranked 59th in the world.

Even after all they have achieved they're 47th in the global ratings and 28th among Uefa nations. That makes qualifying for the next continental competition tough, with Euro 2025 remaining a 16-team tournament.

The Republic of Ireland ladies have made it to this year's Women's World Cup. NI would have to be one of probably only a dozen European qualifiers if they are to replicate their neighbours by reaching the next edition.

However, with Kenny Shiels at the helm, rule out nothing. The Maghera man sets the targets, sets the standards, and is set to keep driving women's football onwards.

Only Hutton has stepped away from the international scene and the young talent that has already had quite an amount of international experience includes McKenna, Kelsie Burrows, Abbie Magee, Andrews, Bell, Chloe McCarron, Caitlin McGuinness, Emily Wilson, and Kerry Beattie.

Shiels thinks more deeply, and further forward, than the vast majority of managers: he aims high but also plans the strategy to work towards those lofty destinations.

Captain Callaghan will continue playing her part, on and off the pitch, and with Director of Women's Football Angela Platt overseeing operations there will be impetus and drive to maintain progress.

McFadden made the bold move to give up a teaching job and go full-time with Durham, while ebullient goalkeeper Jackie Burns and the versatile Wade earned moves to Reading, and Demi Vance has signed for Leicester City.

This year will be duller, with no competitive games until the Euro 2025 qualifiers in the autumn, but the summer of 2022 will always remain a bright delight for Northern Irish women's football.

2022 results:

Friendly (Marbella): NI 3-1 Faroe Islands

Friendly (Marbella): NI 2-2 Switzerland

Friendly (Marbella): NI 0-1 Romania

World Cup qualifier (Wiener Neustadt): Austria 3-1 NI

World Cup qualifier (Windsor Park, Belfast): NI 0-5 England

Friendly (Lier, Belgium): Belgium 4-1 NI

Euro 2021 group A (Southampton): Norway 4-1 NI

Euro 2021 group A (Southampton): Austria 2-0 NI

Euro 2021 group A (Southampton): NI 0-5 England

World Cup qualifier (Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg): Luxembourg 1-2 NI

World Cup qualifier (Jurmala, Latvia): Latvia 1-3 NI

Friendly (Seaview, Belfast): NI 1-0 Italy.


Nadene Caldwell on her route to the Euros, having grown up in the shadows of Windsor Park:

"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.

"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'."

Chloe McCarron on NI's ambitions at the Euros – and beyond:

"On paper, we technically shouldn't be there. The rest are within the top 20 in Europe, we're not. So I think that's a credit to us, we've worked to get in this position, and nobody can take it away from us now because we're here.

"We need to enjoy it but we can't just let this be the only time we've qualified, we need to build on it. Like we can't really be satisfied 'Oh, we've qualified for one. That's it.' "We want to continue and that will just show how good the squad is, if we can do it again."

Southampton-born Laura Rafferty, a supporter as well as a player:

"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."

Captain Marissa Callaghan acknowledged that she had worried about her participation in the Euros due to a foot injury:

"Well, obviously there's a little bit of fear – we're only human, aren't we? We sometimes think of the worst scenario before we can think of the best, so there was a couple of moments when I thought, 'Can I actually do this?'

"But I'm a very positive person and there was nothing that was gonna stop me from getting here. Thankfully so many people have helped me do that."

Manager Kenny Shiels put his team's progress in proper perspective:

"The first part of our success was getting here. The second part is being here. So that's our pathway at the moment - and the third one will be getting better… That's the sequence, that's all we can be: as good as we can be. If we become better at the end of it, and the girls have a good time, then we've achieved an awful lot…

"We've had more time with the girls in the past six months, so psychologically we're in a better place already. The input from the players and the concentration and understanding of what we are trying to build is more evident to the players in this environment than it was when they were working in stores and shops."

Sarah McFadden revealed her change of attitude, inspired by her daughter:

"Before I had Harper I had a lot of fear. We went to Holland, playing in front of 35,000 and I didn't enjoy one minute of it. I hated every moment.

"After that, it was like a switch in mentality. 'What's the point? I have all these amazing experiences all my life and I'm not enjoying them.'

"Since I had Harper, I'm getting to play against some of the best players in the world. I want to give a good account of myself, and I want to be able to come off the pitch and be like to Harper, 'I played a Ballon d'Or winner last night and she didn't score'.

"It's little things now and that is the reason that we play. It's the same for all of us, we have so many people to inspire that we don't want to be disappointing a while."

Shiels acknowledged how tough it would be without the injured Simone Magill:

"She's one of our main assets. What she can do is exactly what we need - change how we play, considerably, because we haven't got that type of player as good as Simone, with what she does. But that's football, that's the way it goes, you get setbacks like that.

"Sometimes you adapt. When we played Austria before, we lost five players, after playing England, and four of them were automatic starters - and we were absolutely brilliant that night. I think the girls dealt with it by giving that little bit more. After losing so many good players due to Covid on the flight [back from London] we weren't filled with confidence, but the girls did us proud that night."

Lauren Wade admitted there was little any of the squad could say to console the injured Simone Magill:

"I think at this point, no matter what you say, trying to pick her up from the way she's feeling is tough, but we are one big family and we are here to support her. She did say she was glad she got to play in some part of it and we are with her every part of the way.

"Simone is a big player for us. It's obviously not good for her the situation we find ourselves in but we are one big family and as a squad we will all be working together for the next game."

Callaghan on the prospect of leading the team out against Austria, after only coming on as a sub against Norway due to injury:

"The sun is shining at a major finals and we just have to enjoy that moment. It would mean everything, but leading the team out in any game does. This is my role and it's one I've grown into. It's made me grow as a person and it would be amazing to lead us out at a major tournament.

"It means so much to hear young girls talking about us. When we were young there were no opportunities for young girls to play but we've flipped that in our wee country and there are opportunities everywhere.

"It's a big motivation for the girls to inspire young girls and to give them the dream we didn't have because it was impossible back then. We got investment from the Irish FA and we are very lucky to have a manager like Kenny [Shiels] here, too."

Joely Andrews on the altered circumstances of 2022:

"I can't really remember what real life is like," she says with a smile, "it will be a shock to the system probably.

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