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These are daunting assignments ahead but we are closing gap on the elite, insists Northern Ireland manager Kenny Shiels

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Kenny Shiels believes the team is now closer to the upper tier of international teams

Kenny Shiels believes the team is now closer to the upper tier of international teams

William Cherry/Presseye

Kenny Shiels believes the team is now closer to the upper tier of international teams

Kenny Shiels knows that individually Norway have players of better quality than Northern Ireland.

The FIFA rankings tell us that as that they are the 11th best team in the world and seventh in Europe. Northern Ireland are 47th and 28th respectively.

Closing that gap and trying to turnaround two 6-0 defeats against the same opposition in qualification may seem impossible.

Northern Ireland may have carried a bigger burden had they not have six months of full-time training going into the Women’s Euro 2022 finals, but that barrier has been broken down and Shiels can see the evidence in his players as they approach their opening game in the tournament and subsequently the biggest one of their lives.

“I feel we are in a better place now than what we were and we just want to get closer to the upper tier of international teams like Norway, like England and like Austria,” said Shiels.

“These are big games for us to be playing, they are all like number one seeds and the matches just keep getting tougher for us.

“We’ve had more time with the girls in the past six months, so psychologically we’re in a better place already. The input from the players and the concentration and understanding of what we are trying to build is more evident to the players in this environment than it was when they were working in stores and shops. They have got more focus on themselves and their self-belief so we feel we can get closer to Norway and it would be great if we could.”

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Kenny Shiels and Marissa Callaghan talk tactics

Kenny Shiels and Marissa Callaghan talk tactics

William Cherry/Presseye

Kenny Shiels and Marissa Callaghan talk tactics

Qualification for the finals has been the biggest achievement in the history of Northern Ireland women’s football – the biggest in Northern Ireland sport in general Shiels declared after beating Ukraine in a play-off to seal their place. Beating Ukraine twice, doing the same against Belarus in the group stages and coming away with two draws against Wales, that saw Northern Ireland through to that play-off on head-to-head record, have rightly been heralded as huge results.

The one thing missing from the list of achievements is toppling one of the big nations. Doing that one the big stage of a European Championship finals would place Shiels and his players even higher in Northern Ireland football folklore, but even the normally optimistic manager admits the size of the task is a mega one and he views the impact on the future as being equally as important.

“The divide in the women’s game is much greater than it is in the men’s,” he said.

“To take scalps, it’s a bit early to talk like that because we are a bit off that.

“We have to go and compete and participate to the best of our ability. That’s our first objective and if we can do that, then we will see the game kicking on back home.”



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