Kenny Shiels’ focus is firmly on the Women’s Euro 2022 play-offs in April as he looks forward to another year of international football.
The Northern Ireland senior women’s team manager has already started preparing for two play-off matches (home and away) even though he will not know the identity of the opposition until early March.
“It’s vital that we get the proper preparation. My squad, as elite players, are fortunate to be able to train during the latest Covid lockdown. They are training three days a week in preparation for the play-offs and are grateful they can do that,” he said.
The experienced boss, who has taken charge of the likes of Kilmarnock, Derry City and Greenock Morton during his managerial career, is hoping to arrange a training camp for the senior women’s squad next month.
Ideally he would like the camp to be in warmer climes, however the scope for it may be curtailed due to Covid restrictions and protocols.
We know we have to take things to another level and the play-off will be a massive challenge for us but the players are fully committed
Northern Ireland’s four wins on the trot in qualifiers in the latter part of 2020 booked their place in the Women’s Euro 2022 play-offs, the draw for which will be made on 5 March after all qualifiers have been completed.
The play-offs, currently scheduled to be played over two legs, are set to be staged in April.
Rearranged qualifiers – several were postponed in the autumn due to the Covid crisis – are due to be played next month, and the group winners in the qualifiers plus three runners-up with the best record against the sides first, third, fourth and fifth in their sections will automatically join hosts England in the final tournament.
The other six runners-up (including Northern Ireland, Russia and Ukraine to date) will be playing off in April for the remaining three berths in the 16-team finals.
Apart from the Russians and Ukrainians, other potential play-off opponents for Shiels’ side include Switzerland, Czech Republic, Portugal, Italy and Switzerland.
The manager knows his team will have to step things up considerably if they are to prevail against whoever they draw in March.
He revealed: “During the camp in February I would hope to play matches against strong opposition. We know we have to take things to another level and the play-off will be a massive challenge for us but the players are fully committed.
“We played stronger opposition at the Pinatar Cup in Spain in the early part of 2020 and we learned so much despite suffering narrow defeats in all three of our matches. In fact I would say our participation in that competition was pivotal to where we find ourselves now.”
Shiels says the players’ commitment to preparing for the big games in April has been exceptional to date.
And he added: “They are all excited by what they are doing and are determined to succeed. People forget that we pipped Wales in our group. The Welsh squad featured something like 15 players from clubs in the FA Women’s Super League in England.”
Over the past year or so the manager has regularly invited members of the women’s U19 squad to train with the senior squad and he is continuing with that policy as he believes it is beneficial to their development as players.
The incentive for the U19s is that they could be part of the squad for the Women’s Euro play-offs and forthcoming Women’s World Cup 2023 qualifiers. Those qualifiers are due to be staged next year, however it’s understood some may be played later this year.
Shiels further revealed he is not really looking beyond the spring of 2021 right now. His hopes for the year ahead include a sustained fightback against Covid. “Hopefully things will be better come April due to the vaccinations roll-out. It would be fantastic to have lots of spectators at the home leg of the play-off,” he added.