Friendship is fuelling improvement among shot-stopping trio
Two into one doesn’t go. Given that impossible equation, three into one definitely isn’t doable.
The good news for Kenny Shiels, then, is that when it comes to making the selection over which of his three goalkeepers gets the nod when Northern Ireland face Norway in their opening game of the Women’s Euro 2022 finals on Thursday night, the two who don’t win the vote will back the manager’s choice.
It’s been common for Shiels to only select two goalkeepers in his international squads, meaning for the most part over the last three years, it’s been a straight choice between Jackie Burns and Becky Flaherty between the posts.
Uefa’s rules for the Women’s Euro 2022 finals mean that a third, Shannon Turner, is now in the mix, potentially making Shiels’ decision more difficult.
The good thing for him, though, is that the closeness within his goalkeeping department means the players who might be biggest rivals are also the biggest friends.
“Jackie is one of my best friends in the squad. There is no rivalry between us,” said Flaherty.
“If I am playing, she supports me and if she’s playing I am her biggest fan and I am the first one to clap if she makes a good save.”
Burns smiles when she thinks about her closest pal in the squad, saying: “I love my friendship with Becky.
“I think it’s important with goalkeepers, it’s such a hard position and both of us are competing because only one of us can play at any one time, that we are able to have an open relationship — that we are able to talk, communicate, have a bit of fun because we are each other’s biggest competitors, but we are also each other’s number one fan and that’s what I love about being in the group.”
There were similar experiences for Burns and Flaherty during the qualifying campaign.
The first game saw Burns start and then Flaherty was given her chance in the key double-header away in Norway and at home to Wales — her performance in the 0-0 draw with the Welsh ultimately proving key in finishing above them in the group.
Burns has taken a firm grip on the number one shirt since then, outside of a suspension after being sent-off in Belarus that ruled her out of the home game against the same opponents.
It has been that support when not playing that has meant the most for both.
“It can be hard as the number two, but we train with each other and we know when the other one is having a good game or training well and when Becky was starting those games, I felt she deserved it,” said Burns.
“We know at times when the other one deserves to be on the pitch because they are having great sessions and they are in that right place physically and mentally to be on the pitch, whereas maybe at that time I was behind a bit.
“That kicks you on when you know there is that bit of competition and it make you think ‘what do I have to do to earn the place back?’.
“It is continuous competition and you would nearly think that it is a bit of a complex relationship, but it is when you have that close relationship that you don’t mind who starts because you know that the other player is going to be there 100 per cent to support you through everything and get you ready for the next game.”
On Flaherty’s part, there is an acceptance that Burns will be the number one at the tournament but, like that game in Belarus and the recent friendly in Belgium when Burns was again red carded, she is ready to be called upon.
“I couldn’t be happier for Jackie because she has had her own setbacks, I have had my setbacks and I feel like because we have been through it all together we are like a little team and we support each other and we have shown what we can both do,” said Flaherty.
“I am happy for her and I have said that she is one of the players to look out for in the tournament because she has been flying.
“In training I think we have both improved a lot because I push her and she pushes me. We try to keep the standards as high as possible in training and we both want to show what we can do so that if I do get a chance to come on, I want to show what I can do against top class opposition.
“If it happens it happens, if it doesn’t I am fully happy for Jackie.”
It won’t be a case of two’s company and three being a crowd when it comes to the tight friendship among the goalkeepers after the uncapped Turner won the call from Shiels for the third slot and the others will ensure she’s not the third wheel.
“I had a couple of camps with Shannon and when I came in, I was talking to her and said that it had been a while,” explained Burns.
“When she said it had been six years, I was a bit surprised. It didn’t feel like that long.
“I’ve known her from the Under-19s and she was quality then. For her to come back in after being at Wolves for a while is a going to be a good experience for her.
“To have all of us, we are all very similar in age, I think it is going to be good fun when we are at the finals.
“Becky has had a bit of time with Shannon when they both came into training ahead of me because I was still in-season in Sweden.
“I am probably the one that has fallen behind a bit in getting to know each other. I have no doubt it will be a quick connection.”
The connections won’t be continuous though. Even the best of friends know when it’s time to be on their own.
“We don’t room together. It could be hard to see each other all the time because we have been training together, so it’s nice to have a bit of space,” said Burns. “We give each other a break from time to time because we know we probably need it.”