What a year it has been for the Northern Ireland senior women’s team. They have inspired thousands of young players and fans, both male and female, with their heroics.
From qualifying for a major tournament for the first time to breaking records, both collectively and individually, they have had a remarkable 12 months under the guidance of manager Kenny Shiels.
No-one gave them a chance of reaching the finals of the UEFA Women’s Euros, but they did it. And they continue to revel in their underdogs tag as they strive to reach a Women’s World Cup finals as well.
2021 did not get off to a great start, but it was merely a blip when they were heavily defeated by England Women in a friendly at St George’s Park back in February.
Shiels insisted the 6-0 defeat against one of the best teams in the world would benefit his side in the long run as it would show them what they needed to do to step up to the next level.
He also felt it would be good preparation for Women’s Euro play-off matches in April; the two-legged play-off for a place at UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 was secured last December when his team defeated Faroe Islands 5-1 at Seaview. The win meant they finished second in Qualifying Group C, pipping Wales thanks to their head-to-record against them.
Northern Ireland, missing a handful of players due to injuries and work commitments, found it difficult to cope with England’s attacking threat in the behind closed doors friendly at St George’s Park.
Ellen White bagged a hat-trick as the Lionesses ran out 6-0 winners in blustery conditions. England’s other scorers were Lucy Bronze, Rachel Daly and Ella Toone.
However, there were some fine individual performances within the Northern Ireland team, especially from young defender Abbie Magee.
The following month the draw was made for three UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 play-offs and Northern Ireland were paired with Ukraine Women.
And they produced a gritty, resilient and skilful display to defeat Ukraine in the first instalment of the play-off in early April.
Goals from Rachel Furness and Simone Magill were enough to secure a famous victory at the Kolos Stadium in Kovalivka.
Participating in their first ever play-off for a major tournament, Northern Ireland started brightly and Furness pounced after just five minutes to put them one up.
Ukraine holding midfielder Tamila Khimich played a poor pass forward and the attacking midfielder nipped in to steer the ball past Ukraine keeper Iryna Sanina. The ball hit the keeper’s foot on the way into the net but Furness rightly claimed the goal.
Ukraine equalised on 22 minutes when their captain and star player Darya Apanashchenko flicked a header past Northern Ireland keeper Burns into the bottom corner.
The Northern Ireland defence stood firm as the home side pushed forward, with veterans Ashley Hutton, Julie Nelson and Sarah McFadden working tirelessly alongside wing backs Rebecca Holloway and Rebecca McKenna.
On 57 minutes Northern Ireland took the lead again when Magill got on the end of a McFadden flick-on, forced her way past her marker and neatly clipped the ball high into the net from 10 yards. It was a lovely finish.
It was backs to the wall in the closing stages, however the girls in green and white held their nerve and held on for a deserved 2-1 victory.
In the second leg at Seaview just days later Northern Ireland Women booked their place at the Euros next year with a gutsy 2-0 victory - to secure a 4-1 aggregate win.
Despite being without the talismanic Furness, who broke her tibia in the first match, and seven other injured players who would have arguably been in the squad at the very least, Shiels’ side produced another excellent performance.
They were defensively sound throughout and classy goals from captain Marissa Callaghan, who replaced the injured Furness in the number 10 role, and substitute Nadene Caldwell were enough to seal the historic success.
After a first half of few chances, Northern Ireland took the lead on 55 minutes when Nelson floated a free-kick into the box towards Callaghan and the skipper flicked the ball past the advancing keeper before slipping it into the net from an extremely tight angle. It was a lovely piece of skill.
In the 87th minute Ukraine were reduced to 10 players when Natiya Pantsulaya was shown a straight red for blocking off McFadden as she was running towards the Ukrainian penalty area.
Right at the death Caldwell sealed the win for Northern Ireland. Magill nicked the ball off a Ukraine defender and nudged it to the midfielder, who cleverly rounded the keeper and stroked the ball home.
Following the match the Irish Football Association released a short film - ‘A New Dream’ - which captured the build-up to the play-off matches in Kovalivka and Belfast and the celebrations afterwards. It provided a fascinating insight into Northern Ireland’s magnificent achievement against the odds.
Also in April Northern Ireland Women boss Shiels signed a two-year contract extension.
Shiels, whose coaching career has taken him to clubs across Northern Ireland as well as in England, Scotland and Thailand, was appointed to the role in May 2019 on a part-time basis, however the fresh deal saw him given a full-time contract with the Irish FA.
The draw for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 qualifiers was made in April, too.
Shiels’ side were placed in European Qualifying Group D along with top seeds England, Austria, North Macedonia, Latvia and Luxembourg.
In June, prior to those qualifiers getting under way in September, the senior women’s team took part in a training camp which included a friendly against Scotland Women at Seaview.
Both sides created chances in the game, however a second half penalty from Scotland substitute Caroline Weir was enough to give Stuart McLaren’s team a 1-0 victory.