It's hardly been the happiest week to be a Northern Ireland supporter — but tonight, the Northern Ireland Under-17 women can give the Green and White Army reason to smile again, by taking a huge step towards their own European Championships.
This evening’s fixture with England at Mourneview Park, Lurgan (7pm kick-off) could provide the perfect tonic to the doom and gloom of the senior team’s fifth place finish in the Euro 12 qualifiers, as well as the Under-19 boys’ disappointing defeat by Montenegro on Tuesday, which saw them also miss out on European qualification.
Now it’s down to the girls, and if there is any further motivation or inspiration required, they need only look back to Northern Ireland’s famous win against Beckham and co in that never to be forgotten Windsor Park night in 2005. Most of this squad were in primary school at the time, but the memory of David Healy’s winner clearly lives on for these girls.
“I think that match is in the back of all our minds,” admitted midfielder Caragh Milligan. “We know what our country can do, and it’s a game that always brings the crowds in. Plus, there’s always a good chance of an upset.”
It’s fair to say that, typically, Northern Ireland do find themselves as underdogs, in a group that, in England and Finland, contains two of the top 10 countries in Europe.
On one hand, Arsenal Ladies goalkeeper Nicole Adams is the sole member of the Northern Ireland squad with any links to the Barclays Premier League, while no less than 17 in the English line-up are connected to top flight clubs, including Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton.
However, Alfie Wylie’s side have shown plenty of promise, with Lauren Brennan and Aoife Curran pulling two goals back from 4-0 down against the Finns on Tuesday night, and captain Jennifer McDade is hopeful that momentum can be taken into tonight’s fixture to earn a result against England.
She said: “It was a tough game, but we more than stepped up to the mark. I don’t think 4-2 was a fair reflection of the game, though unfortunately a few decisions went against us.
“The pleasing thing for me was that, even at 4-0, we kept pushing on.
“We know that England’s tails will be up after their 4-1 win over Israel, and they will be full of confidence — but we are capable of giving anyone a game on our own turf. It would be great to give the fans something to cheer about too.”
After tonight comes the girls’ final game, against Israel at Seaview on Sunday (2pm kick-off). At stake is a place in the second qualifying group, ahead of the finals, which kick off in Sweden next May.
Before then, Carragh will take part in the European Club Championship with her club Glentoran Belfast United, who won the Northern Ireland Women’s Premier League this season. The competition takes part in Spring of next year.