A slice of history is beckoning the girls who have put Northern Ireland women’s football on the map.
Shockwaves reverberated across Europe on Saturday night when Alfie Wylie’s girls in green pulled off a stunning 3-1 win over Norway in a European Championship qualifier.
The Uefa website branded the victory over the former world champions as ‘one of the biggest shocks in qualifying history.’
The fact that the Norwegians have never been outside the top dozen teams in the world, are regulars at the major tournaments and were ranked second only to Germany when the European Championship draw was made gives you an idea of how big a result the Northern Ireland girls managed to achieve.
Now a bigger achievement is in their sights. Claiming a play-off for a place at the European finals is all of a sudden very much within the realms of possibility.
Currently third in their group with a game in hand on the teams above them, the girls are now very much the focus of football in Northern Ireland.
Hopes will rise if Hungary can be defeated tomorrow night in the border town of Sopron and a victory would also lift the footballing spirits of a country that has suffered from too many own goals of late.
“The win against Norway was the biggest we’ve ever had in terms of their ranking, our ranking and where we’ve come from,” said national women’s coach Wylie.
“Although we got a few breaks the performance merited the result.
“For us to score three goals against a top side; it’s as big a result as the men beating England or Spain — and we’re probably ranked lower than the men were when they got those two wins.”
Neither Lawrie Sanchez or Nigel Worthington could lead Northern Ireland’s men to World Cup or European Championship qualification despite those results — and other victories against some of Europe’s top teams, such
as Sweden, Denmark, Poland and Slovenia.
Wylie’s girls have every chance of out-doing their male counterparts, even if they still have a few tough assignments ahead in the quest to reach the 2013 European finals in Sweden.
“We’re not getting carried away. There is a wee bit of hype surrounding us now that we’ve created a bit of interest by getting a couple of good results at the same time as the men’s team haven’t done so well,” said Wylie.
“In our last seven competitive games we’ve won four and only lost one, so we’ve making good progress and with every win the confidence in the group grows.”
Names like Ashley Hutton, Julie Nelson, Kirsty McGuinness and Rachel Furness may not be as familiar as the likes of David Healy, Steve Davis or Chris Brunt among Northern Ireland football fans, but the girls are doing their utmost to gain similar recognition for their performances.
“The Irish FA have invested in the girl’s programme, the domestic leagues are much better than they were and the players in our international squads are picked from all the divisions, not just the Premier League,” said Wylie.
“Our original goal was to finish fourth and that remains the case.
“We were third in our World Cup group, but in this series Iceland and Norway are in a different league to us and if you go by the rankings if we finish third or even fourth we’ve over achieved.”
There are no perks, they just want to play: Wylie
The shirts are the same, but that’s just about where the similarities between the men’s and women’s international teams begin and end.
While the highly paid Premier League and Championship stars are used to being pampered when they head off on international trips, their female counterparts don’t enjoy quite the same treatment, like the luxury of charter aircrafts to and from away destinations.
Most — although certainly not all — of the male players head off to play for Northern Ireland with the blessing of their clubs and still pick up their rather substantial weekly wage as well as receiving a match fee for their international appearance.
In contrast booking time off work, often at their own expense, is the norm for the girls who are currently in the thick of a European Championship qualifying campaign.
Yet they go into tomorrow night’s game against Hungary with confidence high having beaten former world, European and Olympic champions Norway 3-1 on Saturday night.
“We were together three days last week and we won’t get back from Hungary until Thursday morning, so for some that’s another four days this week, meaning they have to take seven days off work to play for their country,” explained coach Alfie Wylie.
“They either take that as part of their holiday entitlement from their jobs or have to take unpaid leave and there’s no payment for the girls. They are true amateurs.
“It costs them money to play international football and even at their own clubs in their domestic leagues they have to pay towards training facilities.”
It is only recently that Northern Ireland stepped back onto the international stage in women’s football, with their competitive return marked with a win over Slovakia in November 2005.
“When I first took over the team all the girls paid their own way to play in the Algarve Cup in 2004. When we went back a year later we managed to get them training kit, but they had to pay for that,” said Wylie.
“The reason these girls put so much commitment into playing for Northern Ireland is because they are doing something they love and it’s great that now, thanks to a few good results, they are getting some recognition.”