Euro 2022: Northern Ireland are the ultimate underdogs with a group of part-time players
At the Newforge Sports Complex in south Belfast, home of the Northern Ireland women’s football team, the slogan is ‘Getting Better Never Stops’.
It’s fitting for a team that has consistently defied the odds. This summer they will participate in the European Championship in England, their first major tournament. They are the lowest FIFA-ranked country (47) to qualify, and they did so with a group of part-time players.
“I love that expression, getting better never ends – and it’s true,” says their manager Kenny Shiels.
Northern Ireland is the country with the lowest FIFA ranking to qualify for Euro 2022 this summer
But Kenny Shiels and his part-time group of players hope to continue to defy the odds
“Football is an addiction for me and I see it in some players. There is an addiction to the game. We have a girl with a child from the full shift, that tells me this is their life.’
For many of Shiels’ squad, however, life looked very different for the start of this year. The majority balanced a full-time job with evening training twice a week.
Some players had worked in hospitals and shops, while others were still in education. That all changed when 22 players went on full-time training camp in January.
Lauren Wade previously worked as a funeral director but has now embraced a full-time education
Lauren Wade, 28, previously worked as a funeral director. “It was a tough job before I had to train in the evenings, but I never doubted it. The full-time environment is something many of us have never experienced, so we thought it was just the norm to go to work, exercise, sleep and rehearse.
“We’ve really seen the differences and benefits that full-time training has had.”
Kirsty McGuinness, 27, worked at B&Q. “I was lucky to work in the morning. They knew I played football and my boss was very understanding.
“Most players worked full time during the day and went to training in the evening. Now we are here in the morning. It’s great that we are here and this is our full-time job now until the European Championship.’
Kirsty McGuinness (right) worked at B&Q and is equally focused on dazzling at the European Championship
While Wade and McGuinness could be released from their day jobs, other players, such as Caragh Hamilton, a business development manager, would have to work remotely during the camp. “I don’t think we realized how much we were stretching ourselves and pushing ourselves physically and mentally to keep a job and then go to training,” said Hamilton, 25.
‘For me it was difficult to stop working for a while and focus my attention on something else.
“I remember in the past sometimes we couldn’t put together a team because people didn’t have enough vacations to go away for three or four camps throughout the year. You just had to go with whoever was available at the time, we tried to scramble around, sometimes we were at the airport calling players!’
All three play for semi-professional clubs in the Irish League with Hamilton and Wade at Glentoran, while McGuniness plays for Coleraine.
Northern Ireland qualified for their first major tournament final in their history by beating Ukraine
A minority of the squad already played 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 recently turned full-time at the Swedish BF Hacken.
So when Northern Ireland qualified for the Women’s European Championship by beating Ukraine, Shiels described it as the UK’s best sporting achievement ever. “That went down like a lead balloon!” Shill laughs. “I said it because I totally believe it.
“If you go through the record of how they did it, it was deplorable, it was really bad. In the two years we’ve had them in their very first final. These are the same players who lost 8-0 to Switzerland and we played against Switzerland outside the park. That makes me feel like we’re making progress.’
Shiels and his players are clearly singing from the same hymn sheet. “He changed our mindset,” Wade says. “Every game we are going to play and it will be in the summer as well. As he says, we’re not here to make up the numbers. We deserve our place.’
Shiels would like his team 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’s a well-known identity that they think they can use to their advantage.
“I’m sure a lot of teams look at us and think ‘it’s just Northern Ireland,’ says McGuinness. “But they don’t say that at the end of the 90 minutes!”
“I always tell the players, ‘If we prepare, we don’t stand a chance,’ says Shiels.
“We have to prepare to prepare. If we prepare to prepare, we will be more and more successful.” As they say in Belfast, getting better never ends.