Northern Ireland team guide Women’s Euro 2022: stars, players, coach, tactics, expectations...
Making their first ever appearance at at a major competition, Kenny Shiels’ side are pitted with hosts England, Austria and Norway in Group A.
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 female game. Pulled out of pot 4 in the draw they lost only two games out of eight in the campaign, both against former world and European and Olympic champions and eventual groups winners Norway, who scored six without reply in the two games.
The key results were the two draws against second seeds Wales, particular the 2-2 in Newport in only the second match of the series 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 the Welsh on head-to-head record.
Four straight wins against Belarus – who had come out of pot 3 – and the Faroe Islands in the second half of the campaign clinched the runners-up spot in the group after Northern Ireland and the Welsh finished with identical records – the Irish scoring two away goals seeing them come out on top.
The 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 meant that fans could not attend the historic occasion when the team clinched their place in the finals.
They will more than make up for that with a large travelling support expected to back the team in 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 the manager, Kenny Shiels.
The manager has experimented with different systems and set ups and 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 Marissa Callaghan and Rachel Furness breaking centrally.
An enigmatic character, Kenny Shiels’ 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 being guiding Kilmarnock to the Scottish League Cup in 2012 and he has continued in the same style after being appointed as manager of the Northern Ireland women’s team six months after leaving Derry City. 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 the time of writing is made all the most 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. Probably her most significant goal came during the Women’s Euro 2022 campaign in a 1-0 win away to Belarus after goalkeeper Jackie Burns had been sent off, leaving the team with only 10 players for over an hour of the game.
The April World Cup qualifying double header saw 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 manager Kenny Shiels to hand her a first competitive start against the might of England a few days later. Those who know the 20-year-old were not surprised by her impact as she has impressed domestically and scored as well as being player of the match in Glentoran’s Champions League victory over Romanian side Cluj last August.
Probable lineup (3-5-1-1)
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 having to take time off from her day job in order to play for her country. 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.
Under the competition’s previous guise – named the ‘European Competition for Women’s Football’ defeats were the norm, 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 NI 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 and realistically getting out of the group would be a fantastic achievement.