It was one of the feel-good stories of the 21st century in Northern Ireland sport when the women’s football team qualified for a first major tournament.
Watching them play in it for the first 45 minutes though, you couldn’t help but feel bad not just because Norway were hammering the history makers but Kenny Shiels’ side weren’t doing themselves justice.
Not even close. Thankfully things changed in the second period with the Northern Ireland team showing much more of what they are all about, scoring an historic goal through the experienced Julie Nelson as they went down 4-1 in their Euro 2022 opener.
Trailing 3-0, moments after the break 37-year-old Nelson headed over the line when Norway failed to clear a corner.
What a moment for Nelson who four years ago became the first woman to win 100 caps for Northern Ireland.
For what the Crusaders Strikers defender has given to the game there could not have been a more fitting scorer of the first goal in a major tournament for the team.
The smile on Nelson’s face was a picture of joy. Early on in her international career she suffered a serious knee injury and was facing a wait of 18 months on the NHS to have the surgery required in order to return to the game.
Nelson has admitted had she waited that long she may never have come back to play football and certainly not to the standards she has set since. Her parents stepped in and paid for the surgery which she had three months post-injury and all these years on having given blood, sweat and tears for her country, here she was writing her name into folklore and becoming the oldest scorer in Euro finals tournament history. The Green and White Army enjoyed that on a night when Norway dominated and had the contest won just over 30 minutes in.
Norway are an excellent side and in Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen have two of the finest players around yet for all that class, it was the carelessness of the Northern Ireland players that allowed them to score three first-half goals which killed the contest.
Given all the joy Shiels’ team have delivered this almost feels like shooting Bambi, but if we are being honest Northern Ireland looked out of their depth at St Mary’s in the opening 45 minutes.
In the 10th minute Julie Blakstad was given the freedom of the south coast to make the breakthrough. Allowing that much space to be exploited early on at international level is criminal.
The ship should have been steadied in Southampton after that but moments later Northern Ireland handed their opponents another gift, playing out from the back and being dispossessed too easily inside their own half by the high-pressing Norwegians who then displayed composure in the danger area to score through Frida Maanum.
It was another poor goal to concede. As was No.3 just after the half-hour mark when Nadene Caldwell clumsily handled the ball from a corner and when a VAR check confirmed a penalty should be awarded, Hansen slotted home.
At that stage a cricket score or at least a tennis score during the Wimbledon fortnight seemed a possibility, especially with Shiels’ stars losing the ball so cheaply and so often.
Missed chances, decent saves from Jackie Burns and outstanding defending from Abbie Magee prevented more goals from being conceded before the break.
To Shiels’ credit he tweaked things tactically in the second half and with captain Marissa Callaghan on having not started, Northern Ireland were much improved, more organised and carried a threat going forward, though Nelson’s goal was quickly followed by one at the other end courtesy of a Guro Reiten free-kick to restore a three-goal advantage for Norway who couldn’t take further chances to add to their lead.
Shiels and his players will take heart from the character they showed in the second period. They could have capitulated after the first half, though there will be concern ahead of the next group match against Austria about Simone Magill, who came off late on in pain and distress.
With a world ranking of 47th, the lowest of any team in the finals, winning a point let alone a match will be a big ask for the players but they were clear before last night’s game that they were not in England to make up the numbers.
It is fairytale stuff that they are playing in the tournament at all. To think that the qualification campaign for Euro 2022 started three years ago, pre-Covid, with a 6-0 defeat to Norway at Seaview in what was Shiels’ first competitive game in charge.
Later in the group, Norway won by the same scoreline on their home turf before Northern Ireland fought back with some fantastic results to make history and make the finals.
The way things were going early on at St Mary’s, it could have been 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 to Norway and while it was still a comfortable game, set and match for them, Northern Ireland rallied to avoid humiliation.
They’ll need more of the same for the remaining matches versus Austria and then hosts England.