Little did we know at the time, but a 94th minute equaliser by Ashley Hutton at Rodney Parade, Newport, Wales, on the 3rd of September 2019 was to prove pivotal in the progress of Northern Ireland Senior Women’s International team under the stewardship of Manager Kenny Shiels.
Kenny first approached me to become part of his back room team in June 2019, the first camp for his NI Women’s squad. I have known ‘The Gaffer’ from the early 1990s and had the pleasure of working with him 11 years previously as a coach in the former Irish FA, County Antrim Excellence Programme.
There is a common thought here in NI that some teams or players can’t play a possession based, passing, style of play. I’ve never shared that belief. Neither does Kenny, his son and Team Coach, Dean or our Goalkeeping Coach Dwayne Nelson. For me, personally, its all relative, keeping the ball statistically increases your teams chances of success. It has been vital that we all believe strongly in that philosophy.
On our first camp, The Gaffer spoke at length about the importance of ‘Trust’. How he wanted to create a bond of trust between the players and between the players and the staff. The scene was set. A clean slate. Everyone ready to establish themselves in the group, going forward to be the best we can be. No one can ask more.
This was the ‘Forming’ stage for our group. Meeting and learning about the opportunities and setting agreed goals to tackle the challenges that lay ahead. No easy task. The fixture list was not kind to us. We started 53rd out of 55 teams in the UEFA rankings, our first four games were home and away against group favourites Norway and second favourites Wales. A difficult challenge while trying to implement Kenny’s methodology. Not even a friendly to experiment beforehand and assess the players.
Nevertheless, with Dean Shiels now on the coaching staff, with unrelenting passion and belief in how we were going to play, Kenny set the team out at home to Norway on the 30th August 2019, to play on the front foot and implement how we wanted to play from this point forward. At the time it was easy to doubt us after our six nil reverse. However, doubt is opposed to belief. Belief is a conduit of success and success can be gained by learning from failure.
So with the excellent support of our Performance Analyst, Damian McCarry, we looked at the game with a positive mindset. Yes we made many errors, yes we made it easy for Norway too often but there were periods of that game, believe it or not, that we dominated possession. Damian also drew some stats that demonstrated the positive increase of our completed passes from a previous game the team had actually won. He collated statical data and video footage for the players on the positive aspects of the game we wanted to focus on. This was the way forward. As the now famous saying goes, ‘you either win or you learn’. We choose to learn.
To come of the back of that heavy defeat, we travelled to South Wales, put in a strong performance and returned with a deserved 2-2 draw, which was testament to how much belief was building within the squad and the back room team.
In November 2019, we travelled away to play Norway in Stavanger. After such a big loss in the first game at home you would forgive any coach for setting their team out to defend and keep the score down. That, however, isn’t part of our methodology. After another six nil defeat, once again we learned. The players learned from their mistakes and the staff learned about our players. This was the beginning of the ‘Storming’ stage of our development. Under strong leadership from Kenny, the group relationships were built, hierarchy established with ownership and personal responsibility embraced by the players.
We dug deep for our fourth group game, this time at home to Wales. An outstanding display from our Goalkeeper, Becky Flaherty, allowed us a 0-0 draw in front of our home fans. Little did we know it would be the last in from of the GAWA for some time. Fortunately, for the next international break in March 2020, with financial support from the Irish FA International Department and through great work from our Irish FA Admin Officer, Heather Wright, we were able to fly out to Spain and compete in the Pinatar Cup against Iceland, Ukraine and Scotland. All the squad got opportunities to voice their opinions and concerns but moreover they got the chance to play without qualification points at stake. We may not have won a game at the Pinatar Cup but we competed really well, much needed experience was gained for our younger players and group trust and belief increased.
Then the pandemic hit us all. Unfortunately we didn’t play a competitive game again until 18 September that year. However, having our NIFL Women’s League granted elite status, with valuable supports of our local clubs, we were at least able to bring our domestic players in to train three times a week and maintain the players development and understanding of the Gaffers methodology.
The ‘Norming Stage’ of our development really started to kick in when we all met up for our next camp, a single qualifying game away to the Faroe Islands. We now had clarity of purpose and a clear strategy had been visualised for achieving our goals; Win our last four games and if Wales lose twice to group favourites Norway, we finished second in the group and make the playoffs.
On the back of a convincing 6-0 win in the Faroes our ‘Norms’ were established. The squad was working together as a unit, we had a ‘football family’ to quote Kenny. We had a common football language, players were interdependent on match and training tasks and we had a clear, focused, common goal.
‘Performing’ teams are identified by high levels of independence, motivation, knowledge and competence. Well our players certainly displayed those traits away to Belarus on 27 October 2020. Losing our Goalkeeper to a dubious sending off, after just 27 minutes, with the score nil-nil, made our task a monumental challenge. We needed to win. That game will stay in our memories for a long time. Down to ten players, we had to reshuffle our pack and needed to score. A set piece routine paid off just before half time, with Rachel Furness giving us a 1-0 lead going into the break.
The rest of that game can only be described as a group of players with fantastic desire, commitment, motivation, knowledge and competence to see the game out and get us the win we needed. If that wasn’t enough to give us palpitations then waiting for 20 minutes on the pitch, with intermittent internet connection, watching Norway hold on to a 1-0 win against Wales, our rivals for second place, certainly was.
Now our fate really was in our own hands. Win our remaining two home games, back to back against Belarus and the Faroe Islands and a play off place was ours. I have no doubt the character this group found in our heavy defeats to Norway, draws with Wales and resilient win away to Belarus gave us the platform we needed to win those two remaining games.
Again, Belarus put up a huge resistance and a never say die attitude, coming back to level at 1-1 and 2-2, however, we had Furness and Kirsty McGuinness to put them to the sword. Now we must beat a much improved Faroe Islands in four days time at Seaview. Going 1-0 down to the team bottom of table was not in the script in our final group game. Kenny and Dean once again showing their excellent tactical knowledge at the break, turning a slender 2-1 half time lead into a resounding 6-1 victory.
The feeling of euphoria at the final whistle will stay with us all for a lifetime, as this team became history makers, despite the odds stacked against them. Throughout the campaign the players and staff have had unswerving support from our physical training and medical team of S&C Coach - Johnny Pedlow, Physiotherapist - Tony Barnett and Team Doctor - William Wilson providing their professional expertise to have the players as fit and ready to play as possible. We are all indebted to them and the intricate part they play in our progress.
Today we are under no illusions going into the playoffs. No matter who we play, the opposition will be many places above us in the UEFA rankings.
We have lost three of our best players to long term injury, most of our players have been unable to get game time due to Covid, injuries and non-selection and we have only had one camp and a single game against an England Women’s team, ranked 46 places above us at the time, to prepare for the double header playoff game. We started this campaign with 6-0 defeat and the players responded magnificently.
Our preparations have repeated the process with a 6-0 defeat to England. Personally I’m not sure how our journey could have been more difficult. Now we as a group must reach the ‘Transforming’ stage of our development and reach even higher levels. As this group of players have proven time and again, they will wear that NI jersey with pride and give their all to provide us with the best chance we have to qualify. Just as they have done throughout the campaign, as a team, together, as a football family.
We all wish the Green and White Army could be there to provide us with their amazing support. If they can’t, we know they are behind us, no matter the outcome, as long as we give our best and of that you can be sure.