Pressure? What pressure?
That has been the mantra of the Northern Ireland team long before they touched down in Southampton for the Women’s Euro 2022 finals.
They weren’t supposed to be here in the first place. Pot 4 teams just don’t qualify for major finals and a team ranked 49th in the world and 30th in Europe when qualification started was never meant to do what teams rated much higher couldn’t.
They will be very much in the underdog category in the finals too and most observers will have them down to be flying home after their three-game adventure on the back of defeats to Norway, Austria and England.
Regardless of all that, there is always pressure and mostly that comes from within and the expectations teams place on themselves as a whole and demands players make individually.
There is a different kind of pressure on the Northern Ireland players going into these finals — a pressure to play at a level that proves the investment in a six-month-long full-time training programme for 23 home-based players and everything that involved.
That has left them in a position where there are no excuses — but the players wouldn’t have it any other way as they reflect on everything that has gone into making sure they are hitting peak form as the biggest games of their lives finally come around after a long time spent getting ready for them.
“At this moment in time we are ready to go,” said defender Abbie Magee, who was just getting back into full training following cruciate ligament surgery as the full-time training programme began in January.
“We don’t need any more preparation, now is our perfect time to be at this tournament and show everybody what we are about.
“I feel really good. Everybody has got better, sharper, fitter and that’s exactly what we wanted from the six months.
“We are all together, we know each other now, we know what way we want to play and I think having the last six months in the full-time set-up has been extremely important for this tournament.
“There is pressure, but we aren’t going to think about that. We are just going to think that it’s another game and we are going to have a plan of how we want to play and that’s all that’s going to matter.”
Life has been very different for 21-year-old Magee since January.
The dark days of 2021 as she fought back from that cruciate surgery are long since behind her, she’s moved from Linfield Ladies to Cliftonville Ladies and is playing a big part in their challenge for the Women’s Premiership title.
She has spotted other more subtle changes as the young players she is trying to inspire as a coach — although that coaching took a bit of a back seat after the full-time training began — have begun to treat her differently.
“I haven’t got to coach as much since being in the full-time programme, but the odd weekend I go back in and the kids are a bit more like, ‘You’re playing for Northern Ireland now’,” said Magee.
“Maybe they didn’t realise it before, but now they are more focused on getting pictures taken with me than letting me coach them, but that’s been good.”
As the start of the tournament looms and anticipation begins to peak, for the players they must remember that there is a match to play against Norway tomorrow and that the hype must be pushed to the side at some stage.
There is, however, an acknowledgement that in some way playing the occasion must intertwine with that and that this one isn’t just a normal game — it’s the biggest one of their careers so far.
With that might come a bit of pressure too.
“It’s going to be hard to keep the excitement and nerves separate,” said Magee.
“We are excited, nerves are good because it means you care and you want to perform, so I think we need to use that and the excitement as well and hopefully that will help us.
“Playing against England at Windsor Park in front of a sold-out crowd — we’re not used to having those crowds — will definitely hold us in good stead for the noise that there will be on Thursday night.
“We are going to have lots of people coming over here to support us, we might not have got fans supporting us before.
“We are going to go out and do our best as we always do and it’s about showing the boys and girls at home and young people that anything is possible — Northern Ireland can reach major tournaments and I think that’s important.”