Ashley Hutton is determined to prove that she is ready to step onto the biggest stage of her long career after being handed the international return that she has craved for over a year.
A cruciate ligament tear sustained just weeks after Northern Ireland’s historic qualification for the Women’s Euro 2022 finals left her participation in the tournament hanging in the balance.
Now that injury nightmare is behind her and the dream of playing in a major finals is within her grasp after being called into Kenny Shiels’ squad for the final preparation game in Belgium on Thursday.
Captain Marissa Callaghan is also in the 24-player panel as she fights her way back from a foot injury. Rebecca McKenna and Julie Nelson are likewise given an opportunity to prove their fitness — McKenna also after a foot injury, while Nelson missed the last number of matches for Crusaders Strikers.
“I feel ready to play international football again,” said Hutton, who completed the full 90 minutes of Linfield Ladies’ last two matches before the break in the Danske Bank Women’s Premiership season.
“I feel probably stronger than I ever did after coming back from any injury.
“I am fit, I am strong and I am ready to go.
“I haven’t played international football since the Ukraine games nearly 15 months ago, but we are playing lots of in-house games and I am ready.
“I want to go to Belgium and prove that I am fit and I am strong and ready to play if need be when called upon at the Euros.”
The squad for the match in Lier gives something of a clue as to who will be in the final selection for the tournament, but there are still decisions to be made by Shiels.
Twenty-four players will travel to Belgium, but only two goalkeepers have been selected, leaving Maddy Harvey-Clifford, Lilie Crooks and recent call-up Shannon Turner still fighting for a spot as Uefa rules state that three keepers must be in the final 23.
That means at least two of those making the trip this week will later be given the devastating news they won’t be on the plane to Southampton to face Norway, Austria and England in the finals.
Hutton may be back in contention, but she isn’t taking anything for granted.
“Injury-wise, everything is good. I am starting to feel fit and strong and it’s now just a case of whether or not Kenny will select me,” she said.
“I am feeling good, but you never know with football.
“I have played a couple of 90 minutes in training and I was hoping to go to Belgium.
“It was difficult up until he named the squad and I still have to wait until he names the team and then the final squad.”
Laura Rafferty and Louise McDaniel have been presented with a golden opportunity to book their places on the plane having been recalled after missing the April World Cup double-header.
Rafferty will provide cover in the defensive department with Hutton and Nelson still to be declared as 100 per cent fit with just over two weeks to go before the finals.
Cliftonville’s McDaniel is back in the reckoning after injuries to Megan Bell and Caragh Hamilton ruled them out of the finals and left a midfield berth to be filled.
Injury robbed Vicky Carleton of a shot at making the finals a couple of months ago and Sam Kelly’s battle to return from a problem that has kept her out for most of the last year looks like one she isn’t going to win as she hasn’t been included.
NORTHERN IRELAND SQUAD: Jackie Burns, Becky Flaherty, Kelsie Burrows, Rebecca Holloway, Ashley Hutton, Abbie Magee, Sarah McFadden, Rebecca McKenna, Julie Nelson, Laura Rafferty, Demi Vance, Nadene Caldwell, Joely Andrews, Chloe McCarron, Marissa Callaghan, Toni-Leigh Finnegan, Louise McDaniel, Rachel Furness, Kerry Beattie, Simone Magill, Caitlin McGuinness, Kirsty McGuinness, Lauren Wade, Emily Wilson.