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One game is not enough for a final say, insists Northern Ireland boss Kenny Shiels ahead of Belgium friendly



Northern Ireland’s Rebecca Holloway during Wednesday’s training session at Herman Vanderpoortenstadion in Lier

Northern Ireland’s Rebecca Holloway during Wednesday’s training session at Herman Vanderpoortenstadion in Lier

William Cherry/Presseye

Northern Ireland’s Rebecca Holloway during Wednesday’s training session at Herman Vanderpoortenstadion in Lier

The value of friendly internationals is often questioned. Criticised regularly too.

Even on the brink of a major tournament there is a strong debate.

Do players go full tilt to ensure they get the maximum benefit? Will they hold back, maybe not intentionally, knowing that the result doesn’t matter, but being fit to step onto the big stage does and is therefore the most important thing.

Kenny Shiels leads Northern Ireland into their one and only pre-Women’s Euro 2002 finals preparation match against Belgium tonight for a game that is, in many ways, priceless.

There is much more to be gained than lost.

Match fitness is paramount, mainly because attempts to put together a more packed schedule of matches failed to bear fruit.

For some players the clash in Lier will be key in their battle to prove they are fully fit and worthy of selection for the finals – Ashley Hutton after a cruciate ligament injury and Julie Nelson and Rebecca McKenna are minor knocks.

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Captain Marissa Callaghan, however, won’t figure as she works her way back.

For Shiels, he has 90 minutes to make up his mind exactly which players will be on the plane to Southampton on Monday week and who will be given the devastating news that they haven’t made the final 23-payer panel.

There is, however, still hope for those outside of the 24 who have travelled to Belgium.

“I named this squad and that doesn’t mean that players who aren’t in it aren’t going to be at the Euros,” said Shiels.

“I met them all on Friday. All of them - there were 36 of them – and I told the ones who were coming to Belgium, which is this group, and I told the ones not coming here that it doesn’t mean that they are excluded.

“There are players here who I need to see a bit more of and one game is not going to give me that full capacity to make that judgement and that’s unfortunate.

“We couldn’t get friendlies. We play in-house games and that is all we’re getting at the minute.

“That’s been a real disappointment because you need to be conditioned to play against these teams like Belgium, Norway, Austria and England.

“We could have done with a bit more, but we have a really tough game against and we will try to get a performance that will condition them.

“We wanted to play Scotland, we wanted to play the Republic of Ireland and we wanted to play Wales, but we couldn’t get fixtures against them.

“That’s why it was vital that we got three friendlies, because we could make our assessments much closer to the finals, but we can’t do that now.

“I am having to judge people on one game, where they are at physically and where they are at mentally. It’s not easy to do that, but we will try our best and when I make those decisions it will be for the betterment of the whole country.”


Kenny Shiels

Kenny Shiels

William Cherry/Presseye

Kenny Shiels

Shiels can learn a lot from Belgium. Not just tonight. One look at the Red Flames’ own pre-tournament schedule and it bears a striking resemblance to Northern Ireland’s upcoming itinerary.

They lost to England in their last match and will face Austria on Sunday. They also have Norway in their World Cup qualifying group.

Those three teams are familiar to Shiels too, of course, having met Austria and England as recently as April and the Norwegians were the first team he faced as manager back in 2019.

The key thing is taking the learnings into the game in Southampton next month – and being fit enough to match them at least match physically if the quality gap can’t be closed.

“There is a touch of irony that we got the same teams in the World Cup and it gives us a barometer of where we can compete,” said Shiels.

“We competed well with Austria in the 2-2 draw, which was an amazing performance and then the 3-1 defeat we matched them in quite a few departments of the game.

“England were too fit for us. Can we do something about that? Not over six months we can’t, but we can narrow the gap.

“You could see England against Belgium last week, it was 0-0 going into the last quarter of the game and that is where we want to be.”

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