Northern Ireland’s women recently qualified for their first major tournament
Kenny Shiels’ attack-minded team have undergone a spectacular transformation
Star striker Simone Magill looks ahead to EURO and World Cup challenges
“The greatest sporting achievement I can think of” is quite an accolade.
The instinctive temptation to dismiss it as hyperbole only increases on learning that it was bestowed on Northern Ireland’s women by their own coach. Yet all it takes is a cursory look at the numbers behind Kenny Shiels’ team’s rise to understand, and perhaps even justify, his lavish tribute.
A classic against-all-odds sporting tale, Northern Ireland reaching the UEFA Women’s EURO was an achievement that no-one – not even the ultra-optimistic Shiels – saw coming.
This was a team that, between March and September 2018, played eight matches and lost them all – by an aggregate score of 24-1. They had plunged to 66th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s Ranking and, despite a healthy subsequent rise, remain 48th and are by some distance the lowest-ranked EURO participants (Russia, 25th, being the next-lowest).
Among the teams to beat them during that miserable eight-match losing run were Kosovo, Slovakia, Republic of Ireland and Ukraine. The Ukrainians went on to inflict a 4-0 thumping in last year’s Pinatar Cup, and were ranked 25 places higher when the teams met in last month's EURO play-off.
Shiels’ squad, which consists almost entirely of amateur players, had been decimated by no fewer than eight significant injuries. Yet Northern Ireland somehow beat Ukraine home and away, deservedly and decisively, for a fairy tale 4-1 aggregate triumph.
“It really is a fantastic story,” Simone Magill, one of just two professionals in Shiels’ ranks, told FIFA.com. “I’ve heard loads of people say they should make a movie about it and I see what they mean because it is inspirational.
“Doing what we’ve done with a team almost full of amateurs, and from the position we were in, is pretty incredible. Although I’m still only 26, I’ve been part of the squad for almost 11 years now. Some of the girls have been there even longer, and we’ve experienced so many lows together.
“There were matches where we were really hammered. Playing up front, I felt like I was hardly touching the ball in a lot of the games. That gets really dispiriting. But one thing I’ll say is that we really stuck together as a group of players even through those hard times, and it means we’re enjoying it all the more now.
“For years, I’ve been dreaming of qualifying for a major tournament, of being part of the first Northern Ireland women’s team to do it. And it was everything I’d dreamed of. Winning that play-off was best moment of my career.”
What made Northern Ireland’s EURO qualification doubly laudable was the manner in which it was achieved. Front-foot football has, after all, replaced the team’s traditional backs-against-the-wall approach, and Magill has no hesitation in identifying the turning point.
“The big thing for us was getting Kenny being appointed (in May 2019) and him implementing a completely new style of play,” the Everton forward explained. “For years before he came in, we’d always had that mindset of being defensive and hard to beat, packing ten or 11 players behind the ball. But from day one, he said, ‘Girls, you can play, so go out there, get on the ball and play without fear.’
“We had a baptism of fire playing that way as our first game came against Norway. But even when we went four and five down (eventually losing 6-0), Kenny kept on encouraging us to play out from the back and be positive. Seeing how committed he was to that really inspired us, and instead of getting down about losing goals, we learned from it and kept playing the same way. And soon the results started to come.”
Shiels’ style is not without its risks, of course, and those were brutally exposed by England recently in a bruising 6-0 friendly defeat. But despite drawing the Lionesses in Europe’s FIFA Women’s World Cup™ qualifiers, and with other giants lying in wait at the EURO, Magill sees no chance of Northern Ireland reverting to negativity and conservatism.
“It’s true England gave us a very tough game in February,” she said. “But I think some of the younger girls were a bit star-struck playing against them and I don’t think, as a group, we’ll make that mistake again. Next time we’ll be wanting to get stuck in.
“Belief will be high, and we can only take the experiences of the past year – of achieving what no-one believed was possible – into the World Cup qualifiers. It will be the same at the EURO. We’ll need to strike the right balance but, knowing Kenny, I’ve no doubts that we’ll keep trying to play football, being positive and doing the things that got us there in the first place.”
That swashbuckling style, and their unlikely success, has certainly captivated a nation. And Magill doesn’t need to look far from home for an example of the youngsters they are inspiring.
“My five-year-old niece only started playing football a couple of weeks ago,” she explained. “She probably would have ended up playing anyway, as my brother’s football-mad, but apparently she watched the play-off on TV and was telling everyone, ‘One day I’m going to play for Northern Ireland like my Aunty Simone’.
“That was so lovely to hear, and hopefully there were loads more girls who’ve started to dream of the same thing. We want to be role models to them, and I I hope we've shown them all what can be achieved if you dream big."