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I'm delighted to help plot a path for future stars, says Ashley Hutton

Milestone moment: Ashley Hutton marked her 100th NI appearance with a goal against Wales
Milestone moment: Ashley Hutton marked her 100th NI appearance with a goal against Wales

By Stuart McKinley

Few have played as big a part in the history of women's football in Northern Ireland as Ashley Hutton.

After clocking up her 100th international appearance against Wales in September - making it an even more memorable occasion by netting the late goal that gave Kenny Shiels' team a 2-2 draw - she is heavily involved in the present too.

And the 32-year-old centre-half can see a bright future at both domestic and international level as the women's game in Northern Ireland evolves at a faster pace than ever.

"I just wish I was 10 or 15 years younger so that I could benefit from everything that is happening now," she said. "But I can't complain because I have had a good time."

Rather than looking back, Ashley wants to look forward, and the most immediate item on her agenda is tomorrow evening's Women's Euro 2021 qualifier against Norway, who were 6-0 winners at Seaview just a couple of months ago in Shiels' first game as boss.

Although it's been a short time since that game, both the manager and his players are confident that things will be different this time around in Stavanger.

"The potential in the squad is good and, with young players coming in, it is up to myself and the senior players to guide them and help them," said Ashley.

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"Kenny has come in and he's brought a new approach and a different style of play, and I definitely think we are going places.

"Qualifying for a World Cup or European Championships has to be our ultimate target and, while it may not happen straight away, the things that are being put in place to improve player development will give us a much better chance in future tournaments."

It wasn't always like that. As Ashley puts it, she 'had to take the bull by the horns and carve out my own path'.

The Irish FA's strategy on girls' and women's football, entitled 'Growing the Game - Maximising Impact', set a target of doubling participation from the current 1,600 registered female players within the next five years.

The Electric Ireland Shooting Stars programme is now the first step on the route to the top, with girls as young as four-years-old getting to enjoy the game.

Girls-only small-sided games centres are becoming more and more common and, after that, the recently formed NIFL Women's Academy League for Under-19s is the final step before senior level and, hopefully, international football.

It means young players can fulfil their potential at home, rather than being a globe-trotter like Ashley, who played in England, the USA and Iceland before eventually settling back home at Linfield Ladies in recent years.

"As a kid I tagged along watching my dad play football, that's how I started to get interested. I played at school before joining a team called Northland Raiders and then I went to Arsenal," she said.

"It was tough there being young and going to London. I'd no grounding in a County Excellence Programme like girls that came behind me and that has grown and been enhanced in recent years.

"Now the pathway for young players is in place and it's clear, right from the Shooting Stars Programme to the Elite Performance, the girls can see what the next step is for them.

"I was pretty much put straight into senior international level in my late teens, nowadays the girls are developed through the Under-15s, Under-17s and Under-19s and, when they come into the senior squad, they have the benefit of international experience at those level.

"Every step along the way was a new challenge for me and I tried to meet every one.

"My parents supported me when I was in London and through my education. I was there for two years and then I went to America on a scholarship and was at university in Leeds too.

"At that time, I was playing in Iceland during the summers along with a few of the other Northern Ireland girls - Sarah McFadden, Rachel Furness, Julie Nelson all went over there to play, and I think Emma Higgins was over there for something like seven years.

"It was tough being away from home, particularly being so young going to London when I was only 16."

Ashley then knows what it is like for the four players who have left Linfield Ladies in recent months to pursue academic qualifications and been able to join clubs in the FA Women's Championship.

Megan Bell was first when she joined Durham Women in July, while Louise McDaniel, Lauren Perry and Kelsie Burrows headed for Blackburn Rovers Ladies when their domestic campaign came to a conclusion.

Bell, Perry and Burrows are currently in Norway along with Hutton as they strive to establish themselves in Shiels' squad.

"It is great for those girls' own development to be training and playing with clubs like Durham and Blackburn," said Ashley.

"Going to England, whose international team is in the top five in the world, has to be the aim for girls who are coming through now."

If those girls, or others who are currently progressing through the ranks, can earn themselves professional deals - like Simone Magill at Everton or Furness, who is now at Tottenham Hotspur - then they can expect to have things a lot easier than Ashley and her early trailblazers, after the Northern Ireland international team was re-established in 2004.

"There are sacrifices to be made when you're a female international with Northern Ireland," she said.

"Those of us who are playing in our own domestic league have to balance work, training, matches and other things.

"I can be hard to do that, especially if work and training times clash. It's been like that all the way through for most of us, and I think for any girl who has ever played for Northern Ireland, it has cost them money at some stage.

"We've been happy to do that, and for as long as I am playing, I will do all I can to be wearing a Northern Ireland shirt."

Having worn that shirt 100 times, Ashley has one more big target - playing in a major finals.

If Northern Ireland can go one better than the 2-2 draw in Wales when the teams clash again at Seaview on Tuesday, it would provide a major boost to hopes of making it to the play-off stage this time next year.

"Against Wales we were probably the stronger team throughout the game and dominated possession. I think the performance definitely deserved better than a 2-1 defeat," said Ashley.

"For me to score the equaliser in the last seconds of my 100th cap was incredible. It was an unbelievable experience and something that I will never forget.

"We know that Norway are a very good side. We learnt a lot from the game against them in Belfast and took that into the Wales game. Now we'll be looking to take that learning and get some points on the board."

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