Kenny Shiels admitted Northern Ireland’s “ridiculous” achievement in qualifying for the Women’s Euro 2022 surprised even him.
Goals from Marissa Callaghan and Nadene Caldwell at Seaview saw Shiels’ side beat Ukraine 2-0 on Tuesday night and complete a 4-1 aggregate win in their play-off tie.
Northern Ireland were facing an uphill battle to qualify even before a devastating injury list and the loss of regular action for the bulk of the squad during lockdown, but they overcame those hurdles to reach the first major tournament in their history.
“It’s the greatest sporting achievement that I can think of,” boss Shiels told the PA news agency. “When you take it in its context – we had amateur players who were going to work in Lidl, in hospitals as nurses.
“The majority of our squad is made up of that and I have to say, when you look at it in that perspective, it makes the achievement ridiculous.
“I’m more than surprised because of the magnitude of where we have qualified to. We’re in the finals. Two years ago we were in the very lower echelons of the UEFA co-efficient and now we’ve moved up enormously.
“We’re in with the big guns. When you look at the potential opposition – Holland, Germany, dare I say England – these are light years ahead of us so it’s going to be very difficult but we’ll be prepared.”
Northern Ireland have made enormous strides since reforming in 2004, with many of the biggest steps coming since Shiels and a backroom team including his son Dean came in 20 months ago.
Captain Marissa Callaghan said the biggest thing the manager had done was to breathe belief into the squad, but Shiels said it was about getting them to trust each other.
“When I came in, I put two words up on the board – trust and integrity,” he said. “You can’t have one without the other. And it has seeped right through the squad. Before we knew it everybody was trusting each other, being honest with each other, and that’s a big platform to build on.”
But the progress made could easily have been derailed as Northern Ireland’s domestic league – where the majority of Shiels’ squad play – was shut down and a succession of injuries left Shiels without eight first-team regulars going into Tuesday’s second leg.
Liverpool midfielder Rachel Furness was the latest name added to a list already including Lauren Wade, Abbie Magee, Demi Vance, Megan Bell, Caitlin McGuinness, Rachel Newborough and Caragh Hamilton.
“That enlarges the achievement tenfold,” Shiels added. “When you have to go through the disappointment of those players not playing, it was unbelievable the way the girls stepped up to the plate.”
The only game Northern Ireland played in preparation for Ukraine was a friendly with England in February.
Though it ended in a 6-0 defeat, Shiels said it was invaluable learning experience and he wants more games like that as next summer approaches and the anticipated return of injured players gives him selection headaches.
“Those eight players will all be available next July so it will be a big ask to select a squad,” he said.
“We have to keep in an upward spiral and an upward frame of mind. I want the players to look at ways they can keep getting better.”