“We want to make sure we work hard to get better by bringing a positive energy and all those things that make a good football team. We are at a stage now where the girls are ready to go and take it forward.”
They are the words of Kenny Shiels when he was appointed Northern Ireland boss in May 2019. Then, Northern Ireland were ranked 59th in the world and were firm outsiders to have a shot in Group C which contained favourites Norway and a strong Wales side.
However, 18 months on, Shiels’ unfancied, yet determined Northern Ireland created history which will change football for a generation in Northern Ireland.
Here’s how Northern Ireland went from underdogs and winless to breaking boundaries’ and showing anything is possible.
Northern Ireland 0-6 Norway
On paper, this looks like a bit of a hammering but it was a game that was crucial to Northern Ireland’s learning process under Shiels.
Up against the former world and European champions, Shiels’ early blueprint was clear to see. A switch from the defensive-minded approach of the past, Northern Ireland were playing out from the back and trying to keep possession at Seaview.
Ultimately, it was a baptism of fire against a world-class Norway outfit, who punished several mistakes at the back to turn on the style against the hosts.
In particular, Barcelona star Caroline Graham Hansen was in ruthless form and she bagged a hat-trick.
However, if you thought a heavy defeat would hinder the growing confidence and new-found approach of this Northern Ireland side then you would be very much mistaken.
Wales 2-2 Northern Ireland
They may not have known it at the time, but a night in Newport would be decisive in Northern Ireland’s fortunes in Group C.
Wales, full of WSL players, came into the match on the back of a 6-0 win over the Faroe Islands, compared to the 6-0 defeat suffered by Shiels’ side.
Simone Magill headed Northern Ireland into an unlikely lead, however the hosts hit back against the run of play through Angharad James and Kayleigh Green.
It looked like the dream was over for Shiels’ young side, like many NI teams before them, against a side 27 places above them in the world rankings. However, Ashley Hutton hadn’t read that script. In fact, she tore it up completely.
With basically the last kick of the match and on her 100th international appearance, the Linfield defender levelled the game at the death and sparked unforgettable scenes of celebration.
Two away goals against Wales would turn out to be vital and, to use the Jurgen Klopp analogy, it was almost the moment Northern Ireland went from “doubters to believers”. They couldn’t possibly do it, could they?
Norway 6-0 Northern Ireland
After the draw against Wales, the return fixture against Norway was never going to determine Northern Ireland’s fate.
Just like at Seaview, Northern Ireland were outclassed by a brilliant side. Graham Hansen was once more in spectacular form and Northern Ireland will be glad to see the back of her in the group.
It was another learning experience and another hallmark of the Shiels era that then Linfield forward Caitlin McGuinness, now of Sion Swifts, was handed her debut from the start aged just 17.
In fact, nine of the 14 players used in Stavanger were from the domestic Women’s Premiership, which again highlights Shiels’ faith in youth and the prospects coming through in Northern Ireland.
It was a disappointing result, however the focus immediately switched for the remaining five matches.
Northern Ireland 0-0 Wales
After another heavy defeat by Norway, it would have been easy for Northern Ireland’s confidence to slip ahead of Wales’ visit to Seaview last November.
Instead of goal difference, teams level on points would be placed on their head-to-head results. The 2-2 draw in Wales put Northern Ireland in a promising position thanks to two away goals in Newport.
To say the game was cagey is an understatement. Lauren Wade and Magill both had efforts saved by Laura O’Sullivan and NI stopper Becky Flaherty was called into action several times at the other end as the game ended in a stalemate.
Keeping Wales out was crucial and it made Northern Ireland’s mission clear. Win your four matches and you will make history.
Faroe Islands 0-6 Northern Ireland
“It’s not about seeing where we end up, we want to qualify. Everyone has that belief.”
Midfielder Chloe McCarron was defiant when speaking about Northern Ireland’s chances of progressing in qualifying before the Faroe Islands game.
Remember, this was still a team without a win under Shiels – either in qualifying or the Spanish Pinatar Cup tournament in March – so the belief from outsiders wasn’t exactly as strong as from those in the group.
Northern Ireland didn’t just pick up a win, they completely demolished the hosts with a result which made people take note.
Kirsty McGuinness was amongst the goals on her international return with Furness, Magill and Wade all finding the net in a superb display.
They may have been favourites to beat the Faroes, but it was exactly the type of performance required for a further shot of confidence to a side who already believed they were on the cusp of something special.
Belarus 0-1 Northern Ireland
If the draw in Wales was the game that started the spark, Northern Ireland’s win in Belarus was the one which fanned the flames.
Knowing victory was a must to keep their dreams alive, things took a turn for the worst when goalkeeper Jackie Burns was dismissed before the half-hour mark.
However, there is a fight in this Northern Ireland side akin to Michael O’Neill’s Euro 2016 heroes and it was more than evident in Minsk.
Up stepped Furness, who had been in scintillating form for Liverpool, to head home Demi Vance’s corner and give NI the goal they required. Furness cracked the crossbar in the second half and Northern Ireland dug deep to see out a vital win against the odds.
With their game finishing early, the players gathered together on the pitch to hear the remainder of Wales’ trip to Norway, with the visitors pressing hard for a late equaliser.
The Norwegians eventually triumphed and that gave Northern Ireland another reason to celebrate – it was game on.
Northern Ireland 3-2 Belarus
“A lot of us have been waiting for this for all of our careers and we have been through a lot together.”
After a determined and battling win in Minsk, Marissa Callaghan summed up the magnitude of what potentially lay ahead in the return fixture against Belarus.
With the backing of the Green and White Army from home, McGuinness settled any nerves with a superb finish inside two minutes although Anastasia Shcherbachenia capitalised on Flaherty’s error to equalise.
The Belarus forward cancelled out Furness’ penalty but NI got the luck they deserved when McGuinness, who was at her fluid and ruthless best, saw her excellent shot rebound in off home keeper Nataliya Voskobovich.
Northern Ireland teams in the past would likely have crumbled and this was a side without many key players – such as Magill, Caragh Hamilton and long-term absentees Megan Bell, Emma McMaster and Laura Rafferty. Nothing was left out on the Seaview turf.
The emotion shown by Shiels in his post-match interview emphasises his full, unwavering belief in his players. Likewise, the never-say-die attitude shows the utmost respect in return and confidence in his gameplan. Three wins down, one to go.
It all came down to this, the biggest game in the careers of this impressive group of players.
It wouldn’t be the Northern Ireland way to make things easy, so when the Faroe Islands took the lead inside four minutes it would have been easy to let heads drop.
However, this is a team which does not give in. Parity was restored almost immediately through the excellent Furness and McGuinness stepped up to put Northern Ireland in front.
McCarron, who was pulling the strings in midfield, netted a goal to match her sublime performance and put daylight between the sides. Caitlin McGuinness and Furness, despite what Uefa’s records say, added gloss to the score line. In the end it was an empathic win.
Despite knowing their place in the play-off was almost secured, Furness had her head in her hands as another chance went abegging as the clock ticked towards full-time. Five goals up yet wanting more. That relentless attitude sums up this team and the outpouring of emotion at the final whistle would have brought a smile to the face of the most hardened of supporters.
Shiels has been a shrewd appointment by the Irish FA but the players must take huge credit for their role in this journey. “Kenny has brought out something that was always there,” said forward Hamilton, and the players have backed up the faith shown in them by the coaching set-up.
This group of players were unfancied and effectively written off before a ball was kicked, yet they always believed. They have inspired a generation and put the spotlight on women’s football in Northern Ireland in the most impressive way possible.
The effects of this qualifying campaign will go far beyond the full-time whistle at Seaview. Young girls everywhere will look at the heroes in green and see that anything is possible – they can see it so they can be it.
No matter what happens in the play-off, this group of players have exceeded expectations and given the nation a lift in a difficult year. Now, with one step to go, Northern Ireland can dare to dream once more.