Last Tuesday went down in the history books of Northern Ireland as they secured their place at the 2022 Euros.
It was only 21 years ago that their national team disbanded, only to reform four years later. Since then, they’ve been written off in every qualifying campaign. Reasons like lack of preparation, players being part-time and general investment have all been at the face of the argument.
Head coach Kenny Shiels can now proudly say he’s lead his country to a major tournament. He will now fly (or ferry) his team to England next year.
Her Football Hub spoke to Forfar Farmington goalkeeper Lauren Perry, who made her contribution between the sticks during the campaign.
From ashes to England
To go from being non-existent to competing with Europe’s finest is nothing short of remarkable. Through it all they’ve had blowing defeats, injuries and everything else in between. Key moments during the campaign were the foundations of the success. Times when they should’ve been out of the hat, they remained. Even the players can’t believe what they’ve done themselves.
“It’s just surreal,” said Lauren Perry. “Even just saying ‘we’re going to the Euros’ is unbelievable. It’s massive for the country, and even looking back ten years ago, we wouldn’t have even put it in contention that we’d be going. Just to see the transformation over the years – even at the start of the campaign we got beat six-nil by Norway and we didn’t even batter an eyelid at it. We just kept going and going. When we beat Belarus one-nil we were down to ten players, and I think that’s when we started to realise, we can actually make this happen.”
Leaving a legacy
With only 1.8 million people in the hearty nation of Northern Ireland, it’s important for those with the shirt to pass it down to those who are willing. Women’s football is still in its early days in terms of progression. So with every opportunity to represent their country on the main stage, comes an even bigger one to inspire the next young girl who may look to do the same one day.
“That’s the thing, we really want to inspire the next generation and make it possible for any young girl especially. Hopefully we inspire them to pick up a pair of football boots or a football shirt and just go out and play. That was the main thing for us. Even in terms of the older players, who are maybe coming towards the end of their careers. For them it’s about being role models for the younger ones. It’s just good to see.”
In the spotlight
Many of the national team’s players still remain back home in the NI Women’s Premiership. A high percentage of the squad work regular jobs whilst playing, meaning they don’t get the chance to showcase their talents on as much of a regular basis. In past campaigns, they hadn’t made it very far – far enough for people to really get a grasp of what they are about. Next year comes an opportunity of a lifetime. All eyes will be on the European Championships, including the eyes of scouts and coaches. The likes of Lauren Perry and Rachel Furness have all made the move to a more professionalised setting. Those in the team dreaming of the same, will have to stand out come next year.
“We have a lot of players who go do their nine to five jobs and then come to training at night. They’ve dedicated a lot of time and commitment over the years, which to them is a credit. For myself and the younger ones who are trying coming through, we’re pushing on and hopefully we can try get across the water [to the UK] and play at a higher competitive standard. The league back home – yes it’s good – but it’s not as competitive as what it is here in Scotland or down in England.”
Lauren Perry now hopes to cement her place in the squad, who’ll head to England next year. Being only 20 years old, she already stands out to Kenny Shiels for her contributions at club level.
Forfar Farmington sit fourth in the table as it stands. Finishing there would be an amazing achievement for those in and around the team.