Northern Ireland switched their focus firmly on to UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 in the summer after competing in World Cup qualifiers in the spring – and they thoroughly enjoyed their first major tournament.
Norway, Austria and eventual champions England all proved too strong for the senior women’s team as they made their bow at a Euros, however it has left the manager and players wanting more.
In the first of their three group games at the Euros - all three matches were played at St Mary’s Stadium in Southampton - Norway showed their class against Kenny Shiels’ side.
The Norwegians produced plenty of slick attacking play as they notched up a 4-1 victory in the Group A encounter in warm and balmy conditions.
Defender/midfielder Sarah McFadden captained her country in the historic game.
McFadden, who had led the team against Norway home and away in the qualifiers for the tournament, was given the armband because there were concerns that Marissa Callaghan, the squad captain, had not sufficiently recovered from a foot injury to take her place in the starting line-up. Callaghan did enter the fray, however, for the second half.
Norway opened the scoring on 10 minutes through Julie Blakstad and they doubled their lead just three minutes later when Frida Maanum clipped the ball home.
On 31 minutes player of the match Caroline Graham Hansen blasted a spot kick past Northern Ireland keeper Jackie Burns to make it 3-0.
Shiels’ side pulled one back just after the break when a Demi Vance delivery from a corner caused confusion in the Norway box and Rachel Furness eventually swept the ball to the back post where Julie Nelson was lurking to nod the ball home - and make history by becoming the first Northern Ireland senior women’s international to score at a major tournament.
Norway scored their fourth on 54 minutes via a sublime free-kick from Guro Reiten.
In the 78th minute Northern Ireland lost striker Simone Magill through injury. It was later confirmed she had damaged the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, which meant she could play no further part in the tournament.
On netting Northern Ireland’s goal Julie Nelson, at the age of 37 years and 33 days, became the oldest scorer at a Euros; she broke a record held by Italy legend Patrizia Panico since 2009.
Northern Ireland were narrowly defeated 2-0 by Austria in their second group game at UEFA Women’s Euro 2022.
They worked tirelessly at St Mary’s, however they could not find a reply to Austria, who scored in the first half before sealing the win late on.
The defeat meant Northern Ireland could not qualify from the group even if they won their final group fixture.
Jackie Burns made a couple of saves as the Austrians began brightly in sweltering conditions. The temperature gauge was at 35c pitchside just before kick-off.
Austria took the lead on 19 minutes. Midfielder Sarah Puntigam drove in a free-kick which took a deflection off Nelson in the two-man wall and was tucked home by alert Austrian defender Katharina Schiechtl from four yards.
The Austrians enjoyed plenty of possession and Burns had to be on her toes to keep them out during the remainder of the first half. It was pretty even after the break. Lauren Wade shot over the top, while a Furness header cleared the bar.
Substitute Katharina Naschenweng made sure of all three points for Austria when she added a second two minutes from time, clinically drilling the ball across goal past Burns into the bottom corner.
Northern Ireland's involvement in their first major tournament ended with a defeat at the hands of UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 hosts and eventual winners England.
Shiels' side worked their socks off in the game, however the Lionesses were in no mood to take their foot off the gas in pursuit of topping the group - and they triumphed thanks to some excellent finishes.
Burns and the Northern Ireland back line repelled several attacks before Northern Ireland's defence was breached on 40 minutes. A Lauren Hemp shot was blocked, however the ball dropped outside the area for Fran Kirby to side foot it into the top corner beyond the reach of Burns. It was a lovely finish.
England doubled their lead moments before the break. A corner was not properly cleared and the ball fell to Hemp whose low strike flew into the bottom corner.
Sarina Wiegman’s side added a third three minutes after the interval through substitute Alessia Russo, who extended England’s advantage further just four minutes later with a superb finish.
There was further pain for Northern Ireland on 76 minutes when Kelsie Burrows turned the ball into her own net as she stuck a leg out to try to stop a Beth Mead cross. The ball looped over Burns and dropped into the net.
Shiels' charges could rightly hold their heads high afterwards. They put in a gutsy performance against a world class team.
They also enjoyed quite a party with the Green and White Army at the end of the encounter.
After the match veteran defender Ashley Hutton announced her retirement from international football. She said playing at the Euros was a fitting way to bring the curtain down. Ashley earned 115 caps for her country across almost two decades.