The qualifying campaign for the Women’s European Championships saw 15 of Europe’s 16 top-ranked teams qualify for the tournament in England. The one exception: Northern Ireland. The scale of Northern Ireland’s accomplishment in reaching the tournament shouldn’t be overlooked.
They were drawn into qualifying group C, with Norway, Wales, Belarus and the Faroe Islands. At the time of the draw, Norway were ranked 7th out of the teams in the draw, Wales were ranked 16th, Belarus 28th, and Northern Ireland 32nd. Only the Faroese team, ranked 39th, were seen as less likely than the Northern Irish side to qualify.
The qualification campaign started terribly, with a 6-0 loss at home to Norway, but the Scandinavian side waltzed through qualification, winning all of their games and conceding one goal in the process. However, a promising 2-2 draw away to Wales followed. Another 6-0 loss, this time away to Norway, was followed by a 0-0 draw at home to Wales.
With Belarus underperforming, it quickly became clear that second place in the group, behind runaway leaders Norway, would be up for grabs if Northern Ireland could better Wales’ results. Both teams found the group’s minnows easy enough to dispatch, and the pair of British sides finished level, on 14 points.
Given that they managed a pair of draws between each other, they couldn’t be separated by head-to-head goal difference, or goals scored, and they had to be separated by the number of away goals scored in their head-to-head matches. With the teams drawing 2-2 in Wales, and 0-0 in Northern Ireland, it was Northern Ireland who went through.
Having finished second in the qualifying group, Kenny Shiels’ side earned themselves a play-off spot. It was already a remarkable achievement. The setup around Northern Ireland’s women’s team only turned professional in 2021, with most of the players on part-time contracts at club level. When the qualifying draw was made, not many would have had Northern Ireland making it out of the group in their football accumulator, but they had managed to earn themselves a two-legged play-off with Ukraine.
The matches were scheduled for April 2021, with the first game taking place in Ukraine. Northern Ireland edged it, goals from Rachel Furness and Simone Magill bookending Daryna Apanashchenko’s strike to ensure Northern Ireland returned to Belfast with a 2-1 lead.
There was no crowd at Seaview, due to Covid-19 protocols, but that didn’t dull the atmosphere at all, with the Northern Irish bench audible throughout the match. The first half was a cagey affair, before Marissa Callaghan scored ten minutes after half time. The captain got on the end of Julie Nelson’s free-kick, nodding the ball on before getting on the end of her own touch and prodding the ball home.
Despite the low attendance, the celebrations were raucous. “Ukraine were never going to take it away from us. We had incredible belief we were going to win,” Callaghan said after the fact. “I cried when I celebrated. It was astounding, it was magical, it was shock – there were so many emotions in that moment.”
Ukraine went down to 10 after Natiya Pantsulaya was sent off, and Nadene Caldwell’s goal at the death sealed the result, one final act to kick off the celebrations of the players and coaching staff, as they secured their place in the group stage of the Euros.
While their performances against Norway show they still have progress to make, and they won’t be fancied against the likes of England, Germany, or Denmark, qualifying for the tournament marks a massive moment in the history of the Northern Irish women’s team, and looks set to be their first step towards a brighter future.