As Windsor Park prepares for yet another historic night Stuart McKinley finds out why Northern Ireland’s ladies are getting excited
Northern Ireland v England, September 7, 2005. Northern Ireland v Spain, September 6, 2006. Northern Ireland v France, March 31, 2010.
David Healy and co may be sitting in the comfort of their living rooms this evening, but for those who will be in the home dressing room at Windsor Park tonight’s occasion will be every bit as significant as those when he netted famous goals to conquer the English and Spanish.
The nerves and excitement will be exactly the same when the green shirts are taken off the pegs and pulled on. The names will be different though. Wylie is in the dugout, not Worthington. For Hughes read Hutton, instead of Davis it’s Turner and rather than Healy it is Furness who will be looked to as the main goalscoring threat.
For the first time the Northern Ireland senior women’s international team will play a competitive fixture at the home of international football when they take on France in a World Cup qualifier.
It’s not the first time the ladies have played at Windsor though and ironically the French were also the opposition in a 2004 when France visited for a friendly.
“A few years ago when I was in an under-17 squad we trained at Windsor Park and when we went back there to train this time I just about remembered it,” said Furness.
“The girls are all really excited about playing there and it’s a big occasion for us to play at the national stadium.
“You don’t see England’s ladies team playing at Wembley, they get shifted around all over the place and it’s good that this game is seen as important enough to be played at Windsor Park.”
Twenty-one-year-old Furness was born in Newcastle, but not in County Down. She hails from Tyneside and now plays for her hometown club Newcastle United and qualifies to play for Northern Ireland through her Belfast-born mother Angela.
She has shone for Northern Ireland, scoring the winner in the first ever home competitive international against Slovakia in November 2005 and then the only goals in Croatia last October as the team won its first ever away game in a qualifying campaign.
That goal, however, is one she never thought would happen.
“I was out of the national set-up for two years after two operations on my knee and only came back last year,” she said.
“I had most of the cartilage removed and was told the rest will disintegrate. I was advised by doctors not to play football again or I would need a knee replacement at a young age and I have arthritis in it already, but I couldn’t give up football and I didn’t think twice about it.
“I never thought I’d play for Northern Ireland again though, but then I played against Ashley Hutton and Emma Higgins, who are at Leeds, in a league game and they asked me if I was going to come back. I didn’t think I was up to that level, but then Alfie Wylie rang me and I jumped at the chance.”
While the female players get treated with the same importance as their male counterparts in terms of hotels, travel, kit and match preparation, outside of playing international football they have little in common with stars like Jonny Evans of Manchester United.
Rachel is just a few weeks away from completing a sports development degree at Northumbria University and a number of her team-mates are also students.
Others have had to take six days off work — either on annual leave or unpaid — since they met up for the first game against the French, a 6-0 defeat in Boulogne last Saturday.
There is no financial reward either, but tonight at Windsor Park they will feel every bit as important — and you can’t put a price on that.
Our girls have made giant strides in very little time
The Northern Ireland women’s football team has come a long way in a short period of time.
Less than five years ago they’d never played competitive football in either a European Championship or World Cup qualifying campaign.
And at the start of the millennium there was a period when international football wasn’t played at all.
A lack of interest and even less money meant girls with ambitions to play football had nothing to aspire to.
That all changed when players paid their own way to play in the 2004 Algarve Cup. The Irish FA then got behind the team and they were entered into qualifying for the 2007 Women’s World Cup.
They had to pre-qualify for the 2009 European Championship series — doing so only on goal difference — and that was a hugely important step.
Without that there would have been no competitive internationals for almost three years and for a country very much in the development stages, that would have been a major blow for women's football in Northern Ireland.
Just what that would have meant for promising talent like goalkeeper Emma Higgins, defender Ashley Hutton — who was on the books at Arsenal at the time — and highly talented duo Kimberley Turner and Rachel Furness nobody will ever know. And thankfully nobody had to find out.
Higgins is protected by a solid defence and her team-mates can rely on her as well, illustrated by a top class performance against big guns England in the Euro series.
Like Higgins, Hutton is now also at Leeds and her height, pace and strength are vital to the Northern Ireland cause.
Turner and Furness are at Manchester City and Newcastle United respectively and while their ladies teams aren’t quite in the same league as the men, they are a step above the domestic league in Northern Ireland and for that reason they will be key against France this evening.