Those who went before, those left behind and future generations will be at fore of women’s thoughts as they take this historic step
July 7, 2022, Southampton, St Mary’s stadium. History will be made, dreams will come true and mission impossible will be achieved.
That’s when and where the Northern Ireland women’s football team will play their first ever match in a major tournament with Norway the opposition.
The men have walked a golden path at World Cups in 1958, 1982 and 1986 and at the 2016 European Championships sprinkling stardust along the way.
Now it’s the turn of the Northern Ireland women who last year united the country when they qualified for their own Euro finals.
Manager Kenny Shiels has chosen the following 23 players to represent the nation at the competition held across England this month: Jackie Burns, Becky Flaherty, Shannon Turner, Julie Nelson, Ashley Hutton, Sarah McFadden, Demi Vance, Kelsie Burrows, Abbie Magee, Rebecca McKenna, Laura Rafferty, Marissa Callaghan, Rachel Furness, Rebecca Holloway, Chloe McCarron, Nadene Caldwell, Joely Andrews, Louise McDaniel, Simone Magill, Lauren Wade, Kirsty McGuinness, Caitlin McGuinness and Emily Wilson.
These sisters aren’t just doing it for themselves, their families and the thousands of fans who will be on the South coast cheer them on.
They are doing it for all those female players who went before, some of whom had to pay for their own flights to go on international duty when the women’s game was an afterthought rather than an important aspect of Northern Ireland sport.
They are doing it for the current players who have been left out of the Euro panel despite playing a part in helping the team reach this point.
They are doing it for future stars and the next generation looking to be inspired with ambitions of putting on the green shirt in years to come.
What a joy for the 23 chosen ladies, what an opportunity and what a responsibility to relish when they face Norway, Austria (July 11) and hosts England (July 15) in Group A.
Six years ago in France Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn scored goals in an epic 2-0 victory over Ukraine transforming them into the Kings of Lyon forever.
Imagine Rachel Furness or Simone Magill doing something similar in Euro 2022 and becoming the Queens of St Mary’s.
Remember Michael McGovern’s heroics in Paris against Germany and how they turned him into a national hero?
Jackie Burns can do the same in goal for Shiels’ side. There is no doubt she will be busy against sides who on paper are superior.
Steven Davis was already a legend in the eyes of the Green and White Army when Euro 2016 came around but captaining the team in the tournament took him to a new level with the supporters.
Marissa Callaghan, assuming and hoping that she overcomes injury, can carry the flag in the same inspirational fashion at a stadium where Davis excelled as Saints skipper.
With the matches, all at St Mary’s, shown on terrestrial television and also a highlight of the UK sporting summer, those Northern Ireland players that aren’t household names already can return with that mantle should they make an impact.
The team have already broken new ground and captured the public’s imagination with their qualification.
This is their chance to do more of the above. True, they will be underdogs in all their matches but that will suit Shiels’ side and give them incentive to create more shocks and surprises.
What we know for sure is they won’t lack determination, desire and commitment to the cause and each other with a wonderful team spirit and camaraderie amongst the group.
Over the last few years there hasn’t been much to smile about in Northern Ireland be it due to Covid-19, the increased cost of living, NHS waiting lists and of course the usual political fall-outs, so an uplifting story and feel-good movie potential like the Northern Ireland women’s team is exactly what we need right now.
Behind it all is Kenny Shiels who found a way to make the players believe that they could make history, fulfil dreams and turn the impossible into reality.
Like Michael O’Neill with the men’s side in 2016, there will be much focus on Shiels who started managing way back in the 1980s.
On the back of the tournament in France, O’Neill found offers rolling in. He eventually took one that came along from Stoke City.
Who knows what propositions will come Shiels’ way after Euro 2022 especially if his side deliver something spectacular.
He told me in January he started out as a boss 36 years ago and wants to make it to 50 which would see him through until he was 79 years of age.
With Kenny it is best to never rule anything out.
This is a Maghera man who has worked in England, Scotland, in the Irish League and League of Ireland and at international level and needs football like the air that he breathes. The beautiful game is in his blood and will never leave him.
What he has achieved in taking the team to their first major competition is remarkable. Like the players he puts into formation he is a game changer for women’s football in Northern Ireland.
July 7 at the St Mary’s stadium in Southampton promises to be a special and historic occasion.
No doubt the team will do us proud.