You could sense something special in the Belfast air on Tuesday as Northern Ireland chased their dream of reaching a major tournament.
Then, after a captain’s display from Marissa Callaghan as she notched the opening goal and a late clincher from Nadene Caldwell, it was suddenly a reality and pure ecstasy for a team who had not only defied the odds, but blossomed when the pressure was really on.
The 2-0 Seaview victory over Ukraine completed a 4-1 Euro 2022 play-off triumph as the euphoric Northern Ireland squad celebrated the country’s first ever qualification for a major women’s tournament.
To put the achievement in context, the women’s national team was only reformed in 2004 after being disbanded at the turn of the century.
Northern Ireland’s rise from the ashes to history-makers in the space of 17 years is nothing short of astonishing.
“No one can understand how a team with players who work in shops or hospitals are here against professionals,” said manager Kenny Shiels before the match.
And he’s right. The journey for this group of unlikely heroes has been remarkable.
Shiels and his players have proven people wrong again and again. Part-time players, a huge number of injuries, a lack of preparation with friendly cancellations – it’s the ultimate underdog story.
The part-time nature of the team cannot be underestimated. Of the 11 starters in Ukraine, seven of them had not kicked a ball for their clubs since December, with one friendly against England in February their sole match practice.
It was similar reading for the second leg, and although Ukraine could have outplayed Northern Ireland, they were never going to work harder, show more passion or out-run this team with a European Championships on the line.
Any team would struggle with eight key injuries to their squad, yet Northern Ireland, 49th in the world, proved the doubters wrong against a team 26 places higher in the rankings. Russia are the next lowest ranked team to qualify for the Euros at 24 in the world.
Rachel Furness, Lauren Wade, Abbie Magee and Demi Vance would have been guaranteed starters. Megan Bell, Caitlin McGuinness, Rachel Newborough and Caragh Hamilton would have been certainties in the squad if fit. And that is just for the two play-off games, not the full qualification campaign.
Northern Ireland’s achievement is magnified by the small pool from which Shiels can pick, but the squad had been using adversity as motivation for the campaign.
The injured players were present at Seaview and although small in number, their impact was unquestionable. They were kicking every ball, clapping every pass and cheering every tackle like they were on the pitch.
While the injured players were a huge loss, time after time the void was filled by lesser-known names, but players who stepped up to write their names in history.
Rebecca McKenna, who celebrated her 20th birthday on Tuesday, was superb after coming into the side at right-back, as was Rebecca Holloway on the other flank. Chloe McCarron, despite her limited game time at Birmingham City, was excellent after replacing Furness and the returning Laura Rafferty was a rock in the second leg.
Honestly, you could name every player who stepped out in a green shirt. They all played their part.
The impact of Shiels and his coaching team, including son Dean, cannot be underestimated. In the space of 20 months he has taken a part-time team to a major tournament. With the injuries, disrupted preparation, Covid-19 regulations, empty stands – it’s simply sensational, almost ridiculous how impressive that feat is.
For those who dare to dream
Yes, of course the result was important, but regardless of what happened at Seaview, the play-off was about so much more than that.
These matches were about the the sacrifices from the squad, their families and friends, those who missed out on this journey, the young kids watching at home but most of all, it’s for those who dare to dream.
The game is growing rapidly and players have talked about further interest from the qualifying campaign alone. Reaching this point should send it into the stratosphere.
If you roll back the years to where it began in 2004, Julie Nelson appeared in Northern Ireland’s first game back against Portugal. Sarah McFadden, Ashley Hutton and Rachel Furness made their debuts the following year.
Caldwell, Vance, Callaghan, Kirsty McGuinness and Simone Magill came along soon after that. The core group of this squad have been there for the journey, weathering the highs and lows, and that is what makes this achievement so special.
At the other end of the scale, Kerry Beattie, the youngest player in the current squad, was only 169 days old when Northern Ireland returned to the pitch after a four-year break.
That is why it means so much to this squad, both young and old. For some of these players it has a life-long dream, for others it has been their entire life.
Each player has their own individual story to tell from this remarkable journey, and it is impossible not to be swept along on the wave alongside this incredible bunch of dreamers.
It’s been a long, sometimes path arduous against all the odds, but ultimately the record books will say one thing – Northern Ireland, history makers.