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Billie's wonder goal was no fluke, says Callaghan


Bright sparks: Manchester United women’s coach Casey Stoney (right) at yesterday’s Electric Ireland sponsorship announcement with Northern Ireland captain Marissa Callaghan and Cliftonville’s Cerys Madden (left)
Bright sparks: Manchester United women’s coach Casey Stoney (right) at yesterday’s Electric Ireland sponsorship announcement with Northern Ireland captain Marissa Callaghan and Cliftonville’s Cerys Madden (left)
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

Any doubts over the intentionality of Billie Simpson's Fifa award nominated goal have been dismissed by Northern Ireland captain Marissa Callaghan.

The Cliftonville defender's long-range volley has been named on a 10-strong list of the world's top goals from the 2018/19 season, with the likes of Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic for company.

Simpson, who along with Linfield forward Caitlin McGuinness will not be included in Kenny Shiels' first Northern Ireland squad when it is announced later today, could even be at Fifa's top award ceremony next month if she makes it into the top three when the public vote ends on September 1.

Callaghan, who is preparing to lead Northern Ireland into their opening Euro 2021 qualifiers against Norway and Wales, was on the pitch at Sion Swifts last summer when the now famous volley flew over the halfway-line and into the net, directly on the end of an opposition goal-kick.

"It was a quality goal and she 100% meant it. I'm just proud I witnessed it live," beamed Cliftonville star Callaghan.

"She does it numerous times in training and in matches. Sometimes you're rolling the eyes at her, going 'Billie... come on'.

"One of the players sent the news into the group chat on Monday and there was a lot of banter about who's going to be going to the awards dinner with her.

"It's hard to believe and I know she's astounded. Not even just for her but also for Northern Irish football - it puts us on the world stage. For our small club at Cliftonville, it puts us on the stage as well.

"It's not every day you're alongside Messi and Zlatan. She just connected so well with it. What a skill to hit the ball so sweetly with so much power."

Simpson and McGuinness will be absent from new boss Shiels' panel after failing to turn up for the manager's first training camp in June.

Speaking at the launch of Electric Ireland's new partnership with the Northern Ireland senior side, Shiels stressed the importance of a team ethic, insisting that players must 'fight for their places' if they're to earn a spot in the squad.

"As the senior team, we have to set the standards in how we play and not just how we do," he said about his aims for his spell in charge.

"The quality of our play has to improve and hopefully we can achieve that.

"We can learn a lot from the men's game in terms of what Michael (O'Neill) has achieved. We want to make sure we have a strong team dynamic with the team ethos first.

"That's the first obstacle; to have an ethos about how we play and how we go about things. We have to look at the chemistry within the team and how the players bond. We have to take away the pressure and fear of failure.

"We play to enjoy and we play to prosper."

Skipper Callaghan added: "It's a really exciting time for the game in Northern Ireland. It's changing. I wish I had the opportunities that the young girls have now growing up.

"It was a great investment by the IFA to bring in Kenny Shiels and his coaching staff. In such a short period of time, I've improved as a player, so can you imagine how the younger players involved are going to improve?"

The next step in development, Shiels says, will be to get more players to England, following in the footsteps of Megan Bell, who scored and contributed two assists on her Durham debut at the weekend.

On that side of the Irish Sea, the women's game is going from strength to strength.

Manchester United's reintroduced team won the Championship title last term and will play in front of up to 30,000 fans in the season-opening Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium next month.

"We have the potential to change the face of the women's game because of the reach that Manchester United has as a club. We have a chance to showcase the game because of the amount of people that follow Manchester United," said manager Casey Stoney at yesterday's announcement of Electric Ireland becoming title sponsor of the Northern Ireland senior women's international team.

• SION Swifts captain Kendra McMullen has retired aged just 26 after a series of illnesses and injuries.

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