Exclusive: Simone Magill on Northern Ireland's “biggest games ever”

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Northern Ireland Women have never qualified for a major tournament. In the space of 180 minutes, and possibly a little more, they have the chance to change this. All that stands between them and the Women’s Euros in 2022 is a two-legged tie with Ukraine.

Kenny Shiels’ Northern Ireland travel to the village of Kovalivka for the away leg on Friday 9th (5pm KO). The fate of the play-off will be decided on Tuesday 13th (7.45pm KO) at Seaview in Belfast.

GiveMeSport Women spoke to Everton star and Northern Ireland international Simone Magill about what it would mean for the country to get to a major tournament.

The journey so far

Things didn’t get off to the best start for Northern Ireland when it came to qualifying for the Euros. A 6-0 defeat to Norway in August 2019 gave people the right to doubt the nation’s chances.

And the team knew it, as Magill explains: “I’ve said it so many times before, we were written off by so many people going into that [Wales] game and we’ve always been the underdogs.”

Unbeknown to the girls in green, that match against Wales, one month after the heavy defeat to Norway, was to become the most defining moment of their qualification process.

Two away goals – one from Magill and a late equaliser by Ashley Hutton – meant that at the end of the qualifying rounds, Northern Ireland pipped Wales to a play-off position based on their head-to-head away goals record.

“That’s when the campaign really kicked off for us, where we really had the belief that we can go and do something special here,” Magill says.

Another 6-0 loss to Norway shortly followed, but the side then did the double over both the Faroe Islands and Belarus. They finished second in Group C, clinching the play-off spot at the expense of Wales.

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Success for Shiels

This is Northern Ireland women’s first Euro play-off. A lot of the praise is rightfully directed at Kenny Shiels. He replaced Alfie Wylie, who had been in charge for 15 years, in May 2019. Shiels was thrown into the deep end with qualification games for a major tournament.

Magill speaks highly of Shiels and his footballing methods. She remembers the first 6-0 defeat to Norway when the manager told the team to keep to their brand of football and not worry about the opposition.

“He said it doesn’t matter, just keep believing in the process, and we did. I think that’s what has carried us this far because if you looked at us maybe a couple of years ago when we played against those teams, we wouldn't have crossed the halfway line,” Magill explains.

Now, Northern Ireland have a winning mindset.

We would have played to try and not lose these games, but now our complete mentality has changed where we go out and try to win games.

Ukraine

That winning mentality will be crucial against Ukraine, an opposition not completely unknown to the Northern Irish women. They suffered a heavy 4-0 defeat to the team as part of the friendly Pinatar Cup tournament in March last year.

Magill, however, turns their recent experience with Ukraine into a positive: “That was the team that a lot of the girls probably would have fancied just because it’s that familiarisation. We’ve played them before, we know what to expect.”

Ukraine sit 24th in the world rankings, while Shiels’ side are placed 49th. This won’t be on Magill’s radar though. The Everton midfielder believes Northern Ireland have made massive strides since their last meeting with Ukraine.

“When we look back at how far we’ve come, it’s crazy. We have developed so much from a technical and tactical point of view,” she says.

“Now we’ve got a better understanding of who we want to be as a team and how we want to play so hopefully going into these games we will be in a much stronger position.”

The future of women’s football in Northern Ireland

Magill doesn’t understate the importance of these play-offs: “These will be the biggest games we will have ever played with Northern Ireland.”

With more media coverage than ever before, the Northern Ireland women’s team will be hoping a place at a major tournament could inspire young girls across the country.

“I’ve already seen off the back end of this campaign – the interest just growing and the exposure it’s getting,” Magill says. “It’s fantastic and it’s been a very long time coming.

If we were to qualify at the back end of this, the game back home would just take off.

“A lot of the youth that are coming through, they’ve got their eyes set on trying to play over here in England and overall, that will only help us internationally if we can get more girls coming across the water playing in professional leagues.

“We’re so close, it would literally be a dream come true,” Magill adds. “It would just be so fitting for us as a group of players to qualify for a major tournament, it would mean so much to everybody involved.”

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