An unlikely box office epic full of despair, drama and proof that dreams do come true
“They should make a film about us.”
In the midst of the euphoria after Northern Ireland’s fantastic Women’s Euro 2022 play-off win over Ukraine Kenny Shiels exclaimed that the history-making achievement merited a story worthy of the silver screen.
There are just two problems.
One is finding an actor with a big enough personality to play Shiels.
The other is getting the script past even the most open-minded and imaginative of Hollywood executives.
A team that started out in the campaign ranked 59th in the world and 30th in Europe making it to a major tournament? Don’t be ridiculous. Who would ever believe that story?
A team largely made up of part-time amateur players with just a few full-time professionals sprinkled in claiming a seat at Europe’s top table? Not a chance.
But please Mr big shot movie director, walk through this with us and I promise you’ll realise that you’ve a box office hit on your hands.
The opening scene setter would be fairly calm, Northern Ireland are in Pot 4 in the draw and the expectations before hand are somewhere between low and zero.
Afterwards though there is a bit of a change of mindset.
Norway. OK, they’ll win the group. The Faroe Islands. Both our men and women have struggled against them in the past, but we should be looking for two wins there.
Wales, Belarus. Hmm. There might be points to be picked up there. There might even be wins to be had.
Could we even beat Wales? Here, you know what? This could be interesting.
Then, following the path of any movie, the equilibrium is shaken. Alfie Wylie, who has led the team from one that didn’t even have a kit to play in at one stage, is replaced after 15 years in charge.
Kenny Shiels is often seen as a maverick. A straight talker. Also a vastly experienced coach who has had success throughout his career.
Is he the right man for the job though? We’ll just have to keep watching.
His first game isn’t really a surprise. Losing 6-0 to Norway was a tough one to take for the new manager and his players who were trying to learn fast a new style of play and doing it against one of the world’s top teams who capitalised on every mistake – and there were enough of them.
Like any box-office blockbuster though, there was a plot twist.
A dramatic one too. Northern Ireland were about to lose 2-1 away in Wales in a game they dominated at times after taking an early lead.
They up popped Ashley Hutton, winning her 100th cap, to nod in a 94th minute equaliser after a goalkeeping error to earn a 2-2 draw.
Suddenly – and despite only picking up a single point in their opening two games – the way the early results had gone and with what was to come Northern Ireland were in contention.
The already up and down nature would become a continuing thread.
The roller-coaster is only just about to start moving though, so strap in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Another 6-0 defeat to Norway? Oh well, after losing by the same scoreline at home did we expect much more? Simone Magill missing that game didn’t help, but injuries and illness is another thread woven through the tale. Laura Rafferty had already been ruled out with a cruciate ligament injury before the first match and there would be more where that came from. Freya Holdaway had to quit altogether after playing in the first two games due to repeated concisions.
The next game, at home to Wales would dictate a lot. Potential pivotal, points were a must.
Becky Flaherty, the third goalkeeper Shiels had used in the campaign, only made her competitive debut in Norway a few days earlier and quickly went from picking the ball out of net six times to making two huge saves late in the game to keep a priceless clean sheet.
The Northern Ireland players, debuting the country’s new kit, trudged off in disappointment, there were tears in the dressing room. They’d had a big chance and didn’t take it. Qualification would now be very tough because of that -12 goal difference.
Ah, but wait.
After checking the rules there was a realisation that goal difference wouldn’t actually matter. Uefa go on head-to-head record to separate teams and drawing 0-0 with Wales was actually a good result after drawing 2-2 there.
Hope springs eternal. Well, it did before spring 2020 came around and after feeling positive coming out of three friendlies at the Pinitar Cup Covid-19 hit and the campaign stopped.
Momentum had gone in a flash and it wasn’t coming back.
All Shiels and his players could do was wait.
When Uefa released their revised fixture schedule – one which was very much in Northern Ireland’s favour, out came the pen and paper and permutations began to be worked out.
‘Right, so we win away to the Faroes and Belarus, Norway beat Wales home and away – 1-0 each time will do – and we’ve the Belarus and the Faroes at home in a final double header. We just have to win those and we’re in the play-offs. It’s on.’
For once there was a straightforward win in the Faroes, albeit only the first win of the campaign.
It was anything but easy in Belarus.
Goalkeeper Jackie Burns was sent off after half an hour when it was still 0-0. How would Northern Ireland going to win this one? Ah, it’s OK, Rachel Furness. One move off her marker and a superbly delivered corner from Chloe McCarron was headed in just before half-time.
Don’t switch off yet though. There was still 45 minutes to get. Abbie Magee coming on for Ashley Hutton at half time? A debutant replacing a 100-cap veteran? What’s going on here?
No need to worry, Magee performed like a centurion herself and the change of formation, something like a 4-5-0, kept Belarus at bay. There was one sniff at doubling the lead and one long-range Belarus effort thankfully sailed over.
They got there.
Help was still needed from Norway.
The players raced into the dressing room, huddled round a mobile phone waiting for the match in Cardiff to end and when it finished 1-0 to the visitors that’s when the celebrations begin.
‘It’s in our hands.’
Two home games against teams they had beaten before, win them and the play-off is theirs.
The players would have bitten your hand off for that scenario after that last home game against Wales.
Plot twist again though – or at least a potential one.
Simone Magill had been struggling with injury. She carried it into the Belarus game and put in such a shift with only 10 players on the pitch that she aggravated it and her club Everton wanted her to rest during the international break.
Are you serious? She’s the focal point of the attack. These are the biggest games her country has ever played.
Megan Bell hds already missed the last two games and there is no sign of her returning. Caragh Hamilton had come back, made a cameo appearance in the Faroes and been ruled out for a year with a cruciate ligament injury – we did say there was more of them to come – and now this.
Hey ho. What do you do?
Two minutes into the first game against Belarus Magill wasn’t missed, Kirsty McGuinness firing in a sweet strike that would have settled nerves if the visitors hadn’t equalised 14 minutes later.
Even when Furness scored from the penalty spot Belarus wouldn’t be shaken off as they again responded within minutes.
The final 20 was still nervy despite McGuinness’ shot rebounding off a post, hitting the unfortunate Belarus goalkeeper and going into the net, but when the final whistle sounded the Northern Ireland girls were 90 minutes from history.
Seaview would have been packed – the IFA could surely have sold it out multiple times – had it not been for Covid restrictions meaning the Faroe Islands would be welcomed by empty stands rather than raucous fans.
Maybe it was the lack of support, maybe it was nerves, but Northern Ireland found themselves behind after only four minutes. Not the best of starts in a game when only a win would do.
Worry not though, Furness is here and she isn’t long in equalising – two minutes in fact.
Kirsty McGuinness strikes and surely everything will be alright now?
Yes, it is after Chloe McCarron hits a wonderful strike Caitlin McGuinness makes it a special night for the family and muted celebrations turned when a late own goal made it 5-1.
The play-off was secured and holiday plans for the summer of 2022 were paused, We could be going to England.
Now it was all about the draw. Ukraine were thought of as beatable. Maybe Portugal too.
Even then there was drama. Ukraine were first out. This is the one we wanted. Then out came ... Russia! Even then there was an agreement with Uefa that the two teams wouldn’t meet. There was still a chance.
The next team out would face Ukraine instead and then it came ... Northern Ireland.
A friendly a year earlier had been won 4-0 by Ukraine, but Shiels used that to blood fringe players and the feeling was they were there for the taking.
Bell was still out, as was Hamilton, now Magee had joined the cruciate club, which had already been increased when Demi Vance was given membership after the home game with Belarus. Lauren Wade and Caitlin McGuinness too are missing.
Furness would join them in the stand for the second leg with a broken bone in her leg, but not before having a major impact on the tie, scoring to give Northern Ireland a dream start, pouncing on a defensive mistake to score after just five minutes and when Magill restored the lead before the hour after Ukraine had levelled midway through the first half it was set up for a big night in Belfast.
Shiels had screamed at his players not to celebrate after that first-leg win.
There was no holding back though at Seaview – which was again sadly empty.
Ukraine might have made it interesting if they had scored first, but they never looked like scoring at all – which which as much down to Burns in goal and Rebecca McKenna, Julie Nelson, Ashley Hutton, Laura Rafferty and Rebecca Holloway at the back and Sarah McFadden in front of them as it was the visitors lacking creativity. Every player in green was outstanding.
Captain Marissa Callaghan’s goal all but sealed the dream. Nadene Caldwell’s injury-time finish confirmed it and the final whistle brought emotions the players thought they would never feel.
As they told everyone in song ‘we’re going to the Euros’.
Yes, little Northern Ireland mixing it with the biggest teams on the continent. How did that happen?
The great thing about this story though is that it isn’t finished yet.
The final chapter is still to be written. No matter how that turns out when the team takes to the field in the tournament, it won’t be anything other than a happy ending because the entire story is simply unbelievable.
You just couldn’t make it up.