All the girls have worked hard to get to this stage and we plan to enjoy it
Not long to go now. After a 15-month wait since that wonderful night when we beat Ukraine in the play-off to qualify the Women’s Euro 2022 finals are almost here. As players we are beginning to get excited ahead of travelling across to Southampton and I know the fans are too.
We’ve all been busy with our clubs on the pitch, we’ve had the World Cup qualifiers too and off the pitch I’ve got married since we qualified so there have been a lot of other things to focus on.
As it gets closer, now just days away, it is starting to feel real.
We’re actually going to play in a major tournament. Who would have thought Northern Ireland could achieve that?
The thing that I have said about it all is that I always wanted to play in a World Cup or European Championships — I said it in an interview before the qualifying campaign kicked off three years ago — and I believed that one day we would.
Did I believe that we would do it straight away? Probably not, not until we were in the campaign and there were a few turning points in it when we actually really did start to believe ‘Here, we can actually go on and qualify.’
I am thinking about the likes big results like Wales away when Ashley Hutton scored in the 94th minute to get us a 2-2 draw, Belarus away — that result was absolutely massive.
Those were pivotal moments in the campaign when we realised that we could do it. They were big results that told us that we could have it in our hands.
I remember so well the game in Belarus, we got into the dressing room after battling so hard to get a 1-0 win with only 10 players on the pitch after Jackie Burns had been sent off in the first half and we were waiting for the Wales v Norway result to come in.
If that result went in our favour then it was completely in our hands with two home games to go against Belarus and the Faroe Islands.
That happened, Norway won 1-0 which was all we needed and for us that was a real pivotal moment in us realising it was in our control now, it was up to us, we could get to a play-off here, we can make it happen – and we did.
It was far from easy though. I think back to that first game against Norway, it was a real baptism of fire for us and we lost 6-0. That was tough.
Kenny Shiels had only just came in, we were adjusting to a new way of playing, a new philosophy and we had to buy into it.
The beauty in that though in many ways was that it didn’t work in that first game at all, but we kept doing it and we kept trying, whereas I think maybe before we might have gone back to our old way.
There was beauty in that too and we took that into the Wales game and that was when we started to see it pay off. We got a massive result over there. We went 1-0 up early - I scored a header after 10 minutes - and I think we got a lot of momentum and belief from that.
Then when Ashley scored that equaliser at the end we felt like we’d won that game.
“I think for us it just instilled so much belief in us that, ‘Here, it works’. We will get better at this. If we keep doing it and doing it we will get better and luckily for us it paid off in the end.
What very few people knew at the time was that throughout the whole campaign I had been struggling with an Achilles tendon injury so so much. I had put everything into the Belarus away game when we had only 10 players for the last hour that it ended up I had to take time out and I missed the last two group games against Belarus and the Faroes.
I had every faith in all the other girls, they were at home and I knew that they would get the job done.
It is easier to talk about it now, but during it it was horrible to watch. It was so hard.
Then I just had to do everything in my power to make sure I was ready and fully fit for the play-off games, which I was, so thank goodness for that.
Going into the tournament there is no expectation on us and because of that hopefully we can go there and play with freedom and enjoy it.
We’ve been underdogs our whole lives playing for Northern Ireland. Everyone wrote us off in the last campaign and even going into this tournament.
We deserve to be there, we’ve earned the right to be there and the beauty for us is that there is no pressure on us, so we can go in and go and cause an upset.
We are fully prepared for this and to not just go and make up the numbers, we want to go and compete and give a good account of ourselves.
Obviously the talent that we are up against, they are world-class players, world-class teams who are used to playing on this stage, used to qualifying for major tournaments and we get that and respect that, but at the same time we’ve got to go and try to cause an upset — and why not?
Qualifying for the Euros has given me a lot of unique experiences that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
I got asked to appear in the BBC Sport plug for women’s sport, I went back to my local club Moyola Park to be interviewed for Alex Scott’s documentary ‘The Future of Women’s Football’ and the launch of our first bespoke women’s Northern Ireland kit was special and good fun too.
I’ll never forget being at the draw in Manchester last October. It was amazing to be there representing Northern Ireland and it then began to dawn on me that we were going to the finals.
One of the most special things though has been nothing to do with football, but rather something that as a knock-on effect wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t going to the finals.
I came back to Northern Ireland a month ago to join the rest of the girls in training camp and it’s the longest I have been at home since I left to go to Everton nearly 10 years ago.
It has been really nice to spend time with my family, spend time with the girls and join their bubble essentially in the full-time set up.
It’s been a really nice stress-free time to do it as well and I’ve really enjoyed it.
I have had really good downtime with my family and a lot of time to switch off and then when I am in with the girls I am fully focussed, but then I get my downtime in the evening because I get to go home and still see my family which is such a really weird thing for me to do, but one that have I really enjoyed.
I’ve been back in my old teenage bedroom at my parents’ house, which has been mental.
My husband has been over, along with our dog Paddy - so having everybody together has made things even nicer.
I couldn’t have come over without Paddy. I don’t know how I’m going to cope for the next two weeks without him, but I’ve got some important business to attend to and I know he will be taken good care of.