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Euro 2022 was the perfect time for me to wave farewell to Northern Ireland, claims Ashley Hutton


Ashley Hutton (6) alongside Julie Nelson after Northern Ireland’s final Euro 2022 outing

Ashley Hutton (6) alongside Julie Nelson after Northern Ireland’s final Euro 2022 outing

William Cherry/Presseye

Ashley Hutton (6) alongside Julie Nelson after Northern Ireland’s final Euro 2022 outing

Three minutes at the end of an 18-year and 116-cap international career may seem minuscule.

It was three minutes, however, that allowed Ashley Hutton to bow out on a high that she didn’t think possible — not just years ago, but within the last few months.

Announcing her retirement from international football after playing at a major tournament is also something no Northern Ireland female player has ever been able to do before.

Back in 2004 when she was among a group that was paying their own way to pull on the green shirt, a century of caps would have been enough of a dream. Playing in a major tournament wasn’t even in her thoughts.

After suffering a cruciate ligament injury 13 months ago, Hutton feared her chances may have been cruelly ripped away from her and, even as she looked like winning her race against time, the need for further surgery left her hopes hanging in the balance.

The 34-year-old had been intending to call time on her days wearing the green shirt at the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign in September, but the perfect ending provided by the Euros was too good to pass by.

Playing in a major tournament against the host nation in front of 30,000 people just seemed to be the right time to say goodbye.

“I have been waiting for three games, but to get any minutes for Northern Ireland has been an honour,” she says.

“I have 116 caps and it’s just great to be here. It’s been a long slog of a year coming back from a cruciate injury.

“I was considering retirement before we qualified for the Euros, but I couldn’t have bowed out then. We got here and I am absolutely delighted.

“We had never qualified before so being at a European Championship Finals and playing the quality of teams like Norway, Austria and England — you can’t get any better than that.

“You just have to embrace it and I have enjoyed every single moment of being here — I have absolutely loved it.

“It’s probably been a long time coming, it’s been emotional and great to do it in front of my family and friends and everyone who has supported me the whole way along.

“From youth level, the likes of Ian Stewart and Alfie Wylie to Kenny Shiels who gave me my last cap — it’s been an absolute honour.

“Friends and family who have supported me the whole way along my career, it’s indescribable.”

Hutton can look back on amazing experiences since her debut at 16.

The memory that she and the rest of the players, fans and coaches will hold dearest will be how she marked her 100th cap.

The former captain was again handed the armband on the night and her injury-time header against Wales not only salvaged a priceless draw, it was also the point that ultimately qualified Northern Ireland for the Euro Play-Offs.

“I am delighted to have got onto the pitch after coming back from injury and finishing my career at a Euros is a moment that I am going to cherish forever,” she adds.

“I think if this time last year I had been offered three minutes, I would have taken it. Just getting to the Euros, especially after having to have a second procedure in February, I didn’t think it was going to come true, but dreams really do come true and I am just delighted that I got here.

“It’s been 18 years of hard work and we never thought we would get to a major tournament. Getting here has been an absolute joy.”

Hutton had to bide her time to make what is now her final appearance.

Having played alongside those now battling for places in the defence when they were her team-mates at Linfield Ladies, she is happy to hand over the mantle.

“When I look round, I see the talent coming through — Kelsie Burrows, Abbie Magee, Rebecca McKenna... I am leaving it in good hands,” concludes Hutton.

“It’s always said to make sure you leave it in a good place and there is no better place to leave it than at the Euros.”

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