Northern Ireland’s “starstruck” players are no longer in awe of England’s superstars — and they are ready to prove it on the big stage this summer.
The Lionesses romped to a 5-0 World Cup qualifying victory at Windsor Park in April, but after facing the likes of former Fifa Women’s Player of the Year Lucy Bronze three times in 14 months, the fear factor that teenage midfield ace Joely Andrews admits was there at the start has finally been broken ahead of a fourth meeting at the Women’s Euro 2022 finals.
After watching from home when England won a friendly at St George’s Park in February last year before being on the bench when Northern Ireland lost 4-0 at Wembley last October, the Glentoran Women star was thrust into the line-up for her first competitive start against a quality-packed England midfield when they came to Belfast.
After impressing during her 75 minutes on the pitch, Andrews believes that Kenny Shiels’ team is now much better prepared to face them this time around.
“When we’d played England previously, there was maybe a bit of a feeling of us being starstruck,” she said.
“When we went to Wembley we had to be really switched on, they are world-class players, but who they are completely goes out the window once you get onto the pitch.
“When we played them at St George’s Park we were a bit taken aback, we got more used to it at Wembley and then at Windsor Park I don’t think it was in us at all.”
Northern Ireland’s qualification for the European finals ripped up the script — and the Fifa rankings.
The other 15 teams are all rated in Europe’s top 20 while Shiels’ girls are 27th — 46th in the world.
The players, however, are determined to show that they deserve their place after going on a run of six successive wins to qualify.
“We have qualified for the Euros by right, the same as everyone else other than England, who qualified automatically,” said Andrews.
“We are on a level with all the rest of these teams so what we want to do now is go and then compete with them.”
Although defeats to England and Austria back in April officially ended Northern Ireland’s World Cup qualification hopes, the double-header was particularly successful for Andrews.
She struck the goal that gave the team some faint hope after going 3-0 down against Austria and has very much staked her claim for a place in the team at the finals after impressing with her use of the ball against England.
The Glentoran Women midfielder, who turned 20 just a few days after that full competitive debut against England, has balanced being in the home-based full-time training programme for the last six months with her studies for a psychology degree at Ulster University.
With a strong mindset of her own, Andrews won’t be overawed by the big stage or the opposition if Shiels trusts her again to face the top teams in Southampton.
“It’s been crazy. A whirlwind at times,” she said.
“Scoring my first international goal out in Austria was an amazing feeling, but at the time it was mixed emotions because as a squad we were very disappointed with the result.
“To score for Northern Ireland was really, really special.
“It was great to be in the team against England and it gave me a feel for what it is like playing against top-class players.
“It was an amazing experience.
“It wasn’t the result that we wanted, but I think we can take a lot of things out of that game. We have tested ourselves against them and we can match up again at the Euros.”