This article is part of the Guardian’s Women’s Euro 2022 Experts Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 16 countries who have qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 6 July.
Northern Ireland are without doubt the team that ripped up the script in qualifying for the Women’s Euro 2022 finals, their first major tournament in the women’s game. Pulled out of pot four in the draw, they lost only two games out of eight – both against the former world, European and Olympic champions and eventual group winners Norway, who scored six without reply in the two games.
The key results were two draws against the second seeds Wales, in particular the 2-2 in Newport when Ashley Hutton marked her 100th cap with a late headed equaliser. Coupled with a 0-0 draw in Belfast in the final game before a Covid-19 enforced delay, that put Northern Ireland ahead of Wales on head-to-head record.
Four straight wins against Belarus – who had come out of pot three – and the Faroe Islands in the second half of the campaign clinched the runners-up spot in the group. Kenny Shiels’s side finished with an identical record to Wales, but the two away goals in Newport saw them come out on top.
In the playoffs, their qualification dream came true after fantastic home and away victories over Ukraine – 2-1 in Kovalivka, and 2-0 in Belfast – and the biggest disappointment was that Covid-19 restrictions at the time meantfans could not attend the historic occasion when the team clinched their place in the finals. They will more than make up for that at the finals, with a large travelling support expected for their three matches in Southampton.
“We had amateur players who were going to work in supermarkets, in hospitals. The majority of our squad is made up of that and I have to say, when you look at it in that perspective, it makes the achievement ridiculous,” said Shiels after qualification was secured.
The manager has experimented with different systems and setups; competition for places plus versatility within the squad mean he isn’t wedded to a particular shape. Against the stronger nations lately, a fluid and somewhat unconventional 3-5-1-1 formation has been employed, with Lauren Wade coming from wide to join Simone Magill in attack, and midfielders Marissa Callaghan and Rachel Furness breaking centrally.
An enigmatic character, Kenny Shiels’s varied and colourful career, which has seen him coach at every level in Northern Ireland as well as England, Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and Thailand over the course of 30 years, was at something of a crossroads when he parted company with Derry City in late 2018. His philosophy of attractive football brought trophies along the way, the most high-profile coming when he guided Kilmarnock to the Scottish League Cup in 2012. He continued in the same style after being appointed as manager of the Northern Ireland women’s team six months after leaving Derry. Under his leadership they have achieved unprecedented success – record-winning runs, record victories and qualifying for a first major championship.
Rachel Furness is many things to Northern Ireland women’s football. She is the team’s all-time leading goalscorer, their playmaker, most high-profile player and a fantastic role model to those who one day want to pull on the green shirt. Her amazing record of 38 goals in 84 appearances (at time of writing) is made all the more remarkable by the fact that a chronic knee injury forced her to take a two-year break from the game while still in her early 20s. Now 34, Furness’s most significant goal came during qualifying in a 1-0 win away to Belarus after goalkeeper Jackie Burns had been sent off in the first half.
The April qualifying double header saw the Glentoran midfielder Joely Andrews announce herself on the international stage. She stepped off the bench to score her first senior international goal in a 3-1 defeat to Austria and impressed enough during that cameo appearance for Shiels to hand her a first competitive start against England a few days later. Those who know the 20-year-old were not surprised by her impact as she has impressed domestically, scoring as well as being player of the match in Glentoran’s Champions League victory over Romanian side Cluj last August.
Julie Nelson has been involved for 18 years, making her debut in 2004 after the Irish FA took the women’s international team under their control. Now aged 37, she made her 100th appearance in September 2018 and is still going strong 124 games into her Northern Ireland career – most of those caps coming as an amateur player. As a coach with the Irish FA’s development programme, she is playing a part in growing the next generation and is sure to be involved in the game long after she retires from playing.
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Under the competition’s previous guise – named the “European Competition for Women’s Football” defeats were the norm, Northern Ireland failing to register even a single point in the 1984 and 1987 series before pulling out in 1989 when the UK and Ireland regionalisation was scrapped and the Northern Ireland Women’s FA couldn’t fund foreign travel. There was a brief return for the 1991 campaign, again without success, before a 15-year break. A pre-qualifying tournament in November 2006 was hugely significant as that saw Northern Ireland in the main qualifiers under Uefa’s banner for the first time, but it was during the 2013 series that they really made their mark, defeating Norway – who went on to win the group and lose in the tournament final – 3-1 in what is still Northern Ireland’s most famous result. The 11 points won in 10 games was their previous best Euro qualifying performance.
Realistic aim this summer
The smallest and lowest-ranked nation in the tournament, Northern Ireland have lost to all three group opponents – Austria, England and Norway – in the last three years. Realistically, getting out of the group would be a fantastic achievement.
Stuart McKinley writes for the Belfast Telegraph.