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On the verge of history... NI's 'brilliant' women backed to clinch Euro finals place

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Impressive: NI’s Rachel Furness (centre) celebrates scoring against Ukraine with Simone Magill (back) and Marissa Callaghan (right)

Impressive: NI’s Rachel Furness (centre) celebrates scoring against Ukraine with Simone Magill (back) and Marissa Callaghan (right)

William Cherry/Presseye

Gareth McAuley celebrates his goal in 2016

Gareth McAuley celebrates his goal in 2016

Colin Murray

Colin Murray

Gail Redmond

Gail Redmond

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Impressive: NI’s Rachel Furness (centre) celebrates scoring against Ukraine with Simone Magill (back) and Marissa Callaghan (right)

Let's hear it for the girls.

Five years on from one of the most memorable games in Northern Ireland's football history, the senior team once again face Ukraine, hoping for Euros glory.

This time, however, it is the women who stand on the brink of another remarkable triumph.

Kenny Shiels' battling ladies are 90 minutes away from reaching next year's European Championship finals in England, and thus emulating the men's team, who made it to France for their first ever Euro finals series in 2016.

Thanks to goals from Rachel Furness and Simone Magill in the first leg of the play-off in Kovalivka last week, the girls go into tonight's showdown at Seaview in north Belfast 2-1 ahead.

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That makes them slight favourites to progress, but it's really only half time and another epic performance - in front of empty stands, unfortunately - will be needed if they are to realise their dream of reaching a major tournament.

No one will be cheering more loudly than former Northern Ireland defender Gareth McAuley, who of course has fond memories of scoring a fantastic header against the Ukrainians in Lyon in June 2016.

'Big G' said he would be delighted to see the girls make it on to European football's top table.

"I was mightily impressed by their performance in the first leg, when I thought they displayed a proper Northern Ireland performance," the ex-Premier League star told the Belfast Telegraph.

"It was full of hunger, desire and grit.

"Ukraine will be hurting and determined to rectify the situation but I'm confident our girls can see this one out.

"Belief is key. They need to be confident in their ability, remain composed and take their chances when they arrive."

He added: "This is a great opportunity for the girls and it will be a much needed lift for women's football in Northern Ireland if they were able to create history."

Meanwhile, ex-Northern Ireland captain Gail Redmond, who is co-commentating on the match - which will be shown live on BBC 2 and on the BBC Sport NI website - said she felt "very privileged to be one of the lucky ones who gets to see the match live".

"It'll be an amazing experience and I believe they can go all the way," she said. "They're just 90 minutes away from being history makers. The start of the campaign didn't go to plan - they suffered back to back defeats.

"But then Kenny [Shiels, their manager] introduced a new style of playing with belief, which they bought into, and they've all shown superb resilience, competitive spirit and togetherness."

Broadcaster and die-hard Northern Ireland fan Colin Murray told the Belfast Telegraph that the team was "brilliant".

"The Green and White Army women's team has captured the imagination of the thousands and thousands of fans who I believe would've sold out Windsor Park had tickets been on sale.

"They fought against the odds the whole way through and they go into this game defying all expectations, with nothing to lose, regardless of the outcome."

He added: "It's hard to put into words what an achievement it would be to qualify."

Stephen Craigan, who captained the men's team on many occasions, said that on behalf of all Northern Ireland fans he wishes them well in their quest to make history.

"They're on the verge of history," the 54-cap defender told this newspaper. "They've been terrific so far; they've won five games in a row. And now there's a genuine belief that they can do it.

"They're on the verge of a dream - so let's go and make this dream a reality."

He added: "Women's football has been in the shadows for too long. This is a chance for them to make history for the country and for themselves." William Nelson, whose daughter Julie has won 115 caps in the 17 years since her Northern Ireland debut in 2004, said the Crusaders Newtownabbey Strikers player was determined not to let any rivals get past her tonight on her home ground.

"It's fantastic the way this has worked out," he said.

"It's been a long slog for Julie; her mother and I have watched her play all over the world.

"The irony is that, although we don't have far to go for this crucial match, we can't get in to see it because of the pandemic restrictions."


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