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Marissa Callaghan: Northern Ireland are excited by chance to make up for lost time and qualify for Euro 2022


Historic ambition: Marissa Callaghan is hoping to help Northern Ireland secure a Euro play-off berth

Historic ambition: Marissa Callaghan is hoping to help Northern Ireland secure a Euro play-off berth

Historic ambition: Marissa Callaghan is hoping to help Northern Ireland secure a Euro play-off berth

Marissa Callaghan has been playing international football long enough to have experienced too many lows.

There have been highs along the way, but the ultimate high has yet to be reached.

Northern Ireland have never been to the final stages of a major tournament in women's international football, but now, on the back of their best run of form in a decade, history is looming for Kenny Shiels' team.

And after seeing previous opportunities to take the country to the next level pass her and her team-mates, captain Callaghan is hungry to make up for lost time by beating Belarus at Seaview tonight to set up a massive game against the Faroe Islands on Tuesday when another victory would secure a Women's Euro 2022 play-off place.

It's all come on the back of recording successive away wins against the same opponents - the team's first back-to-back wins in nine years - which also saw them keep three clean sheets in-a-row for the first time in a decade.

"It's now nine years ago when we did really well in a campaign and finished third in our group," recalls Callaghan.

"Since then we haven't reached those heights again."

That was the 2011 Women's World Cup qualifiers when France, who would go on to reach the semi-finals, won the group with Iceland, where women's football was incredibly strong at the time, runners-up.

Northern Ireland won three and drew two of their 10 games in that group, but in the next four campaigns over the space of eight years they only won seven times.

Four straight wins will get them over the line in the play-off race and that would be a major achievement, especially considering that Northern Ireland have never won more than two on the bounce before.

Football purist Shiels has given them style and the substance has quickly followed.

"Kenny came in last year and created a real camaraderie between the players," adds Callaghan.

"We feel a real togetherness and we're really booming with confidence and everyone has improved since he came in.

"We have an exciting style of play, it's exciting to watch, it's exciting to play in and we can't wait to get onto the pitch and play.

"I'm really looking forward to it. It's just exciting. It's a massive game and I can't wait."

Callaghan has had to be patient during the current campaign, spending more time on the bench than before.

She is expected to add to her 60-plus caps from the start this time in place of the suspended Sarah McFadden.

At the other end of the scale, 19-year-old Crusaders Strikers starlet Emily Wilson is set to fill the big shoes of Simone Magill after her recent hot form was rewarded with a return to the international fold.

Losing two big players with over 130 caps and 25 years of playing experience between them is a blow, but one that Callaghan believes the squad is more well equipped to deal with than they ever have been before.

"I think the squad, because we have improved individually and collectively so much, is good enough to cope," she says.

"As much as it's a big loss not having Sarah and Simone on the pitch, it's an amazing opportunity for young Emily coming into the squad for the first time in a few years. She's been amazing in the league with Crusaders."

Callaghan saw that at close hand when Wilson scored four times against her Cliftonville Ladies team last week.

"Yes, it's unfortunate for us, but we're delighted to have Emily on board," added Marissa.

"Sarah is amazing to have around the squad. She's a big personality and the girls idolise her, she's still here, she's still a massive part of it and she'll be ready to go against the Faroes."

Belfast Telegraph