Belfast Telegraph

NI ready to fight for Euro dream, insists Sarah McFadden

All smiles: Rebecca Flaherty (left) in training
All smiles: Rebecca Flaherty (left) in training

By Stuart McKinley

Sarah McFadden is daring to dream.

Up until now, playing in a major finals has been something that, realistically, Northern Ireland's female football players could only dream of.

Always punching above their weight as one of the lower-ranked teams in their qualification groups, the girls in green more than held their own on a number of occasions and even pulled off a remarkable win over Norway back in 2011.

With a draw that has been relatively kind, and new manager Kenny Shiels instilling his footballing philosophy, there is a sense that dreams can come true.

Having spent the last 10 years living and playing in England, McFadden is starting to believe she could pull on the green shirt on one of the biggest stages of all when the Women's Euro 2021 finals are played in England.

Anyone who watched Northern Ireland's 2-2 draw in Wales back in September will know that her belief isn't misplaced.

It may have taken a last-gasp goal from Ashley Hutton to save Shiels' team from defeat, but for a large part of the game they were the better side and a point was the least they deserved.

If they can go one better and defeat the Welsh when the teams meet again at Seaview tonight, the dream will be alive.

Northern Ireland may have suffered 6-0 defeats in each of their meetings with Norway this time around, but at least those games are out of the way now and clashes with Belarus and the Faroe Islands in the second half of the campaign offer opportunities to close the six-point gap held by the Welsh - which could be cut in half by tonight.

"Of course we have thought what could happen," said McFadden, who plays her club football for Durham Women in the FA Women's Championship.

"We've never been in a position like this before where we've got a group like this. It's good to have another Home Nation because usually we end up like the last campaign with Norway and Holland as the top seeds, so you are fighting a losing battle, but if we can get a result against Wales we're in a good position.

"If we look at the other teams, Belarus ran Wales really close so we need a win to get us a chance to qualify or get a play-off.

"We need to get a result against Wales and then start focusing on Belarus and the Faroes because they could be the games that are harder to come back from if we slip up in them."

McFadden has captained the team on the pitch since the start of the current campaign. While Marissa Callaghan remains the squad captain, she hasn't started any of the first three games.

The Cliftonville Ladies captain remains integral to Shiels' plans as he strives to raise standards.

Callaghan and the members of the squad playing in the Danske Bank Premiership have shown their dedication to the cause, training three times a week with Shiels, and she hopes the preparation will be reflected tonight and the rest of the campaign.

"We've got sharper, we've got fitter and we are more confident players. The girls have bought into it, and we'll see how we reflect that against Wales," said Callaghan. "You have to have that desire to get better.

"Kenny is taking us two evenings a week and we're doing our own sessions in gyms. It's having that fire in your belly to say that the coaches believe in us, but we have to do our own bits just to get that extra step.

"The quality in training sessions is better because we're fitter. The quality is very good and the sharpness and speed of thought and people's awareness and quality on the ball is a big step up."

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