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How Northern Ireland's crushing disappointment turned to delight after confusion over Women's Euro regulations


Northern Ireland celebrate making it through to the Women's Euro play-offs.

Northern Ireland celebrate making it through to the Women's Euro play-offs.

William Cherry/Presseye

Northern Ireland celebrate making it through to the Women's Euro play-offs.

Thirteen months ago, the Northern Ireland team sat in the home dressing room at Seaview with some of the players close to tears.

A 0-0 draw with Wales had crushed their Women's Euro Play-Off hopes. Or so they thought.

Unaware that UEFA's tie-breaking criteria prioritises head-to-head records over goal difference - as well as giving greater weight to away goals if everything else is equal - they were also unaware that, outside of a victory, a goalless draw was pretty much the ideal result.

It was only the next day after manager Kenny Shiels had looked into the detail, had it confirmed by the Irish FA and then spread the word around his players that the realisation set in. The dream was on - REALLY on.

Thanks to a thrilling 2-2 draw with Wales in Newport earlier in the campaign, when Ashley Hutton celebrated her 100th cap by scoring an injury-time equaliser, Shiels' girls would be ahead of Wales if there was a tie.

There was now a belief among the players that they were capable of winning home and away against both Belarus and the Faroe Islands, like Wales would probably do, even though Northern Ireland had never won more than two games in a row before.

The other expectation was that world-class group favourites Norway would win all their fixtures, therefore meaning Northern Ireland and Wales would ultimately finish the campaign on the same number of points.

Last Tuesday night, thanks to a 5-1 victory over the Faroe Islands - their fourth successive win - the tears did flow, as did the champagne. This time they were tears of joy as one moment of history followed another and the dream came true. A 0-0 with Wales was a result to celebrate. Just as much as when Hutton netted in the 94th minute to claim a 2-2 draw.

"I don't think that we would have known how important that goal was," says Birmingham City midfielder Chloe McCarron, who topped off a starring performance against the Faroes with a stunning goal to put Northern Ireland 3-1 up on the night.

"Essentially that's the goal that got us ahead of Wales in the head-to-head, and on her 100th cap she couldn't have asked for any more."

A four-match winning run, three consecutive clean sheets and only two defeats in a campaign is a record any team could be proud of, let alone a Northern Ireland side of any guise and irrespective of the opposition.

Silencing the critics wasn't top of the agenda, but McCarron is happy to do that too.

"No-one really thought that we would be in this position, so we have just gone and proven a lot of people wrong because they had us written off from the start," she adds.

Northern Ireland must now wait for the outcome of the two uncompleted groups before they find out who their potential Play-Off opponents are. Russia and Ukraine are the only two teams who are confirmed as being in the March 5 draw, while Austria and Switzerland have secured second place in their groups, but it remains to be seen if qualify directly for the finals as one of the three best runners-up.

Rachel Furness doesn't mind having to wait for the matches to come around, saying: "I'm personally going to milk this for the next five months because it's the highlight of my career."

For McCarron, it's a case of 'bring it on' after the injection of confidence in recent months.

"We'll take on anybody," says the 22-year-old Coleraine girl.

"We came into the group as underdogs and we'll probably go into the Play-Off as underdogs, but we have shown what we can do, so there is no doubt about it that we can take it to whoever we play."

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