Meet Northern Ireland! The ultimate underdogs at Euro 2022 qualified as the lowest-ranked nation and will look to defy the odds with a group of part-time players… including a B&Q worker and funeral director
- Northern Ireland beat Ukraine to qualify for their first ever tournament finals
- Kenny Shiels is keen for part-time players to continue improving for the summer
- The underdogs are the lowest-ranked nation to have reached the showpiece
- They have been placed in a group alongside Norway, Austria and giants England
At Newforge Sports Complex in south Belfast, the home of Northern Ireland’s women’s football team, the slogan is ‘Getting Better Never Stops.’
It is fitting for a team that has continually defied the odds. This summer they will take part in the Euros in England – their first major tournament. They are the lowest FIFA-ranked nation (47) to qualify, and they did so with a group of part-time players.
‘I love that phrase, getting better never stops – and it’s true,’ says their manager Kenny Shiels.
Northern Ireland are the lowest FIFA-ranked nation to qualify for Euro 2022 this summer
But Kenny Shiels and his part-time group of players are hoping to continue defying the odds
‘Football is an addiction for myself and I see it in some of the players. There is an addiction to the game. We have one girl who has a child out of the full squad, that tells me this is their life.’
For many of Shiels’ squad, however, life before the start of this year looked very different. The majority were balancing full-time jobs with training twice a week in the evening.
Some players had been working in hospitals and shops while others were still in education. All that changed when 22 players entered a full-time training camp in January.
Lauren Wade previously worked as a funeral director, but has now embraced full-time training
Lauren Wade, 28, was previously working as a funeral director. ‘It was a tough job before having to train in the evenings but it was something I never questioned. The full-time environment is something a lot of us have never experienced so we just thought it was the norm to go to work, go and train, sleep and repeat.
‘We’ve really seen the differences and the benefits that training full-time has had.’
Kirsty McGuinness, 27, worked in B&Q. ‘I was lucky I worked mornings. They knew I played football and my boss was really understanding.
‘Most players were working full-time during the day and then going to training at night. Now we’re in here first thing in the morning. It’s class that we’re here and this is our full-time job now until the Euros.’
Kirsty McGuinness (right) worked at B&Q, and is equally focused on dazzling at the Euros
While Wade and McGuinness were able to get time off from their day jobs, other players like Caragh Hamilton, a business development manager, would have to work remotely while on camp. ‘I don’t think we realised how much we were stretching ourselves and pushing ourselves physically and mentally to maintain a job and then go to training,’ says Hamilton, 25.
‘For me, I found it difficult to switch off from work and put my focus into something else.
‘I remember in the past sometimes we couldn’t put a squad together because people didn’t have enough holidays to get away for three or four camps throughout the year. You just had to go with who was available at the time, we were trying to scramble around, sometimes standing in the airport ringing players!’
All three play for semi-pro clubs in the Irish league with Hamilton and Wade at Glentoran while McGuniness plays for Coleraine.
Northern Ireland qualified for a first major tournament finals in their history by beating Ukraine
A minority of the squad were already playing professionally. Rebecca Holloway, Simone Magill and Rachel Furness all play in the Women’s Super League while Sarah McFadden plays in the Championship. Goalkeeper Jackie Burns has recently turned full-time with Swedish side BF Hacken.
So when Northern Ireland qualified for the women’s Euros by beating Ukraine, Shiels described it as the best ever sporting achievement for the United Kingdom. ‘That went down like a lead balloon!’ Shiels laughs. ‘I said it because I believe it, totally.
‘If you go through the record of how they had been doing, it was deplorable, it was really poor. In the two years we’ve got them into their first ever finals. These are the same set of players that lost 8-0 to Switzerland and we played Switzerland off the park. That makes me feel like we’re making progress.’
Shiels and his players are clearly singing from the same hymn sheet. ‘He’s changed our mentality,’ says Wade. ‘Every game we’re going to compete and that will be the same come the summer. As he says, we’re not there to make up the numbers. We deserve our place.’
Shiels is keen for his squad to use their underdog tag to their advantage at the showpiece
As the lowest ranked nation in the Euros, Northern Ireland will undoubtedly be given the ‘underdog’ tag. It is a familiar identity and one they believe they can use to their advantage.
‘I’m sure a lot of teams look at us and think “it’s only Northern Ireland”,’ says McGuinness. ‘But at the end of the 90 minutes they’re not saying that!’
‘I always say to the players: “if we just prepare we’ve got no chance”,’ says Shiels.
‘We must prepare to prepare. If we prepare to prepare, we will keep getting more success.’ As they say in Belfast, getting better never stops.
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