Northern Ireland Women will be heading to their first major tournament next summer after completing a Euro 2022 qualifying play-off victory over Ukraine on Tuesday night.
Kenny Shiels’ side upset the odds home and away to beat a side 25 places above them in the FIFA rankings and book their ticket to England next July.
Here the PA news agency takes a closer look at the background of an historic night in Belfast.
How big an achievement is this?
Shiels argued it should rank alongside pretty much any achievement in sport given the huge hurdles Northern Ireland have overcome. In ordinary times they would have faced a major uphill battle – FIFA’s rankings have them 49th in the world, they were playing a Ukraine side ranked 24th, and the next lowest-ranked team to have qualified for the finals are Russia in 23rd. But piled on top of that was a brutal injury list and the unprecedented challenges thrown up by the global pandemic.
How many players were missing?
Eight players were absent from Shiels’ squad for the play-offs, four of them with long-term knee ligament injuries. And, as the manager pointed out, these were not squad players but first-team regulars when fit. Rachel Furness, Lauren Wade, Abbie Magee and Demi Vance would have been nailed on in Shiels’ starting XI if fit, while Megan Bell, Caitlin McGuinness, Rachel Newborough and Caragh Hamilton would all have been in the frame too. It was the sort of crippling injury list expected to kill off already faint chances.
How has Covid impacted the team?
If the list of absentees was not enough to deal with, many of the players Shiels did have available have barely kicked a ball in anger during lockdown. The suspension of the Women’s Premiership in Northern Ireland has left the bulk of Shiels’ squad – many of whom are part-time – without games to play, while a friendly against England in February was the only match they were able to play in preparation.
So they should only get stronger from here?
Absolutely. With key first-team players to come back, Shiels should face selection problems of the best kind as next summer’s tournament draws closer, while there is obvious hope for a resumption of regular action for players as lockdown restrictions begin to ease. The trajectory has only gone in one direction since Shiels and his backroom team took over in 2019, with the challenge now to keep that going so that they can compete at next summer’s finals.