Watch: Northern Ireland beat Ukraine in first leg of Euro 2022 play-off
Venue: Seaview, Belfast Date: Tuesday, 13 April Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC Two Northern Ireland, BBC iPlayer, BBC Sport NI website and Red Button.

“It’s just another game whether we lose, whether we win – it’s just a game of football.”

That has been the rhetoric across the board for Northern Ireland before Tuesday’s Euro 2022 play-off second leg with Ukraine, yet this is “another game” like no other.

Carrying a 2-1 lead after a spirited victory in Kovalivka on Friday, Northern Ireland are one match away from continuing their fairytale run to a first major finals.

Effectively written off before a ball was kicked, Kenny Shiels’ side have defied the odds time after time to make history, first by reaching the play-off and again with the Euro 2022 finals now in sight.

“Two years ago we never thought we would be sitting in this position, and I don’t think many other people expected it either so it is nice to make people eat their own words,” said midfielder Chloe McCarron.

‘When I play’ – Matchday inspiration as Northern Ireland chase history

“We will be going in as the underdog, as we have been the whole campaign. We’re going to make the best of the occasion and hopefully we come out the right side of it.”

But for a group largely made up of part-time players, how do you deal a with a match of this magnitude with history and a place at Euro 2022 on the line?

“A few nerves will be expected, it’s a big occasion. Everyone is level-headed and we know it is going to be a hard game,” added Birmingham City’s McCarron.

“We need to black out the importance of the game, stay focused and prepare the same way like it was any other game.

“We just need to relax when we are out on the pitch. We are all tight-knit as a group and we all mix in together, both staff and players.

“Off the pitch, the majority of the time we are chilling as a group, we’ll have a pool competition in the games room or something like that. It can get competitive but we are always bonding as a team.”

Chloe McCarron replaced the injured Rachel Furness in the first leg in Ukraine
Chloe McCarron replaced the injured Rachel Furness in the first leg in Ukraine

While the media tone has been consistent, there are glimpses of how much it means to a group of players who, while still considered underdogs against Ukraine, were once complete outsiders.

“It’s massive, not just for me but for everybody. It will be the most important game of our lives so far,” said McCarron, 23.

“It would be massive and it would give us all something to look forward to next summer. I think either way on Tuesday night I’ll be crying.”

Players need to relax amid expectation

Shiels admits that “a little bit of tension” has begun to creep into the squad since the victory in Ukraine on Friday.

“The realisation that we won on Friday and the potential of the second game will definitely add some nerves. We want to try and relax them as much as we can,” said the 68-year-old.

“The country is looking at them now as having a lead, there is maybe a feeling of expectation about going through but managing expectations is something Northern Irish people are not the best at.”

Already missing eight squad regulars through injury for the play-off, Shiels says it is a case of “wait and see” over the fitness of key midfielder Rachel Furness, who limped off with an ankle concern after scoring the opening goal in Ukraine.

Shiels has transformed the fortunes of Northern Ireland
Shiels has transformed the fortunes of Northern Ireland

He says the fact his players are part-time – seven of the players who started on Friday hadn’t kicked a ball for their clubs since December – dealt with big-name injuries and one sole friendly “magnifies the achievement of the girls” no matter what happens on Tuesday.

“It’s a very hard task, there is no home advantage anymore. Subconsciously, a 2-1 lead can distort the brain a wee bit.

“Our girls won’t have too much confidence, it’s a precarious lead but if we work hard then we will have a chance.”

After becoming manager in 2019, Shiels says NI’s rapid progress has been down to “unearthing the talent” in the squad.

“They have gone from strength to strength with belief and positivity, and tactically in how they play. The transition from losing, to competing to winning is evident for everybody to see.

“I’m very proud of myself, of the staff and the players more than anyone. I’m very proud that we have made a difference.”

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