Northern Ireland are set to make their debut at a major tournament when they take on Norway at St Mary’s in their 2022 Women’s Euros opener.
Kenny Shiels’ side are the competition’s lowest-ranked nation and face a considerable challenge to progress from Group A, which also contains Austria and hosts England.
Northern Ireland, currently ranked 47th in the world, qualified for the competition by defeating Ukraine in the play-offs and will play each of their Group A fixtures at St Mary’s Stadium.
Callaghan : N Ireland not at Euro 2022 to make up numbers
Captain Marissa Callaghan insists Northern Ireland are not at Euro 2022 to “make up numbers” as she prepares to lead her country into their first major tournament.
The veteran Cliftonville midfielder has declared herself fit and ready for Thursday evening’s historic clash with Norway in Southampton after making a rapid recovery from a broken bone in her foot.
Northern Ireland are easily the lowest-ranked team in the 16-nation tournament and massive underdogs to progress from a group also containing Austria and hosts England.
Yet, on the eve of the biggest game of her career, Callaghan dismissed suggestions that an early exit is inevitable.
“We go out every game with the belief that we can win it, you have to,” said the 36-year-old. “We’re footballers, we want to strive to be our best.
“You can’t go into any game thinking, ‘this is going to be tough, they’re going to beat us’.
“It’s always been our way from Kenny [Shiels, manager] coming in that every single game we’re preparing to win. That will be the mindset that we go out with on Thursday.
“Obviously we know exactly how hard that challenge is going to be, we know the calibre of player and team we’re up against.
“But we’re here, we’re in the top 16 teams in Europe and we’re here to cause an upset and we’re not just here to make up numbers.”
Callaghan was given a guard of honour by team-mates ahead of training at St Mary’s on Wednesday afternoon.
She, at times, feared injury may deprive her of an emotional, landmark moment before overcoming physical and mental barriers to be in contention.
Having struggled to find opportunities to play football as a child, Callaghan has seen first-hand the rapid growth of the women’s game over recent years.
“I’m so proud, so honoured,” she said. “It’s a dream come true for any little girl to lead their country and captain their country. I still have to pinch myself that it’s my title.
“We’ve been on this incredible journey and this is the pinnacle, this is what we’ve all worked hard for, this is something that was almost beyond our wildest dreams.
“When we were young we had to go and play with the boys or go and play in the street and almost force somewhere to play the game.
“Now, fast-forward, the opportunities are endless and just recently at Windsor (Park) we had almost 16,000 fans there. There was nothing going to stop me getting here.”
Northern Ireland are set to be backed by a sizeable travelling contingent for their three Group A fixtures on the south coast.
Shiels: We need composure
Manager Shiels, who confirmed he currently has a fully-fit squad available, vowed to continue with the brand of football which secured qualification, rather than adopt a more pragmatic approach against formidable opposition.
“We play as we are,” said the 66-year-old. “That success has got us here.
“I say to the girls all the time, ‘fear of failure is failure’ and we work off the template. We can’t be afraid of other football teams that we play against.
“We need composure, we need to be able to manoeuvre their expressions in how they want to perform and how they want to play, we can’t mess about with that in any shape or form.”
Norway’s talented squad includes the likes of Barcelona forward Caroline Graham Hansen – who hit a hat-trick against Northern Ireland in qualifying – and 2018 Ballon d’Or recipient Ada Hegerberg.
Manager Martin Sjogren is confident of making a strong start to the competition.
“The preparations have been good, I think we’re well-prepared,” said the 45-year-old Swede. “We have had a clear plan and we’ve waited a long time for this championship.
“Northern Ireland’s biggest strength is that they battle for one another 110 per cent but we hope that we can dominate with our attacking play.”
Can Northern Ireland impress at Euro 2022?
Sky Sports News’ Paul Gilmour on the Sky Sports Women’s Euros podcast:
“There’s never a dull moment with Northern Ireland women’s team ahead of their first ever European Championships this month. There’s always something going on.
In the past three months, manager Kenny Shiels has been forced to apologise for comments regarding women’s emotions, captain Marissa Callaghan has suffered an injury scare and Ciara Watling complained that she found out about her failing to make the final squad through social media.
“On the pitch, there’s a similar lack of ideal preparation. Shiels wasn’t happy that he only had one warm-up game – a 4-1 defeat against Belgium – and he wanted more. They didn’t secure anything and had a couple of rejections from other associations, including Home Nations.
“But for Northern Ireland, a fourth seed team punching above their weight, the achievement this summer is just getting to the tournament. Just like with the men’s team in Euro 2016, the players are determined the enjoy the experience.”
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Hegerberg returns to tournament action
Ada Hegerberg is back with Norway and hoping for a successful Euro 2022 campaign.
The all-time top scorer in the UEFA Champion’s League with 59 goals only returned to the international side earlier this year.
Before that, the 26-year-old had last represented her country at Euro 2017 when the team lost all three group games and failed to score a goal. Hegerberg then stepped away from the national team frustrated at the way women’s football was regarded in the country.
This was followed by a 20-month absence with a cruciate ligament injury, only returning to club action last October, winning the Champions League for a sixth time with Lyon this season.
N Ireland forward Emily Wilson on Ada Hegerberg
“She’s a top player and she’s had great success in her career but we want to focus on the team, it’s not just about individuals.
“She’s a great player – one of their best – and can create a lot going forward so we need to make sure that we know about that and are prepared for that.
“But they’ve got great quality all over the pitch as well.”
“I missed the taking part and representing [Norway] at the big stage a lot,” she said.
“Obviously, the team, the girls is a part of it, but also that connection that you have with the next generation. I think we’re in an incredible place in order to inspire the next generation of young boys and girls.
“I didn’t have that normal connection when I was away. But now I’m here, back again ready to do my part of the job, and hopefully, we’ll do something good together and be able to inspire a lot of kids all over.”
“There is a lot of excitement. We’ve been in kind of a bubble since June 12 and coming over here [to England], I really feel it’s closing up. I’m very impatient to get this started, and just good balance between this excitement and also focus I would say.”
The return of the inaugural Women’s Ballon d’Or winner has seen many tip Norway to reach the knockout rounds from Group A – and potentially go far in the competition.
“We’ve been challenged a lot about that lately in the media and I think it’s very important to like not lose ourselves in any way,” Hegerberg said.
“I think you’re allowed to be ambitious, but at the same time, you’ve got to be brutal honest with yourself about where you’re at in every moment, so that you don’t think you’re further than you are or that you’re worse than you are,
“We are showing up here not to only compete, we want to do something, but our only focus now is to get a good result against Northern Ireland, get ourselves into it and just see how far we can take it.”
Magee: N Ireland can show anything is possible
Defender Abbie Magee says Northern Ireland must use their landmark appearance at Euro 2022 to inspire future generations by showing that “anything is possible”.
“Obviously we talk about leaving a legacy but we’re going to have loads of people coming over here to support us,” said the 21-year-old. “We might not have got fans coming before.
“We’re just going to go out and do our best, as we always will. But it’s just showing the girls and boys back home that anything is possible; Northern Ireland can reach major tournaments – I think that’s important.
“They’re looking for your autograph, they want a picture of you and they want to be you and it’s just kind of amazing that we’re going to leave a legacy after this tournament and inspire more girls to play for Northern Ireland.
“It’s been a bit of a surreal time for us. We had our suits and looked the part when we went to the airport. The cameras were there too, which we’re not used to.
“When we landed, I think it really hit us that we’re at a major tournament but obviously we can’t be shocked away from what we’re here for; we’re here to play matches and we want to put on a good performance.
“At this moment in time, we’re ready to go. I don’t think we need any more time or preparation. I think now is a perfect time to show everybody what we’re about.
“Nerves are good, it means that you care and want to perform so we need to use that, and the excitement as well will hopefully help us.”
Follow Euro 2022 across Sky Sports
Keep up with all the latest from Euro 2022 across Sky Sports and Sky Sports News this summer.
Coverage will be anchored by Sky Sports WSL presenter Caroline Barker, alongside Jessica Creighton and Kyle Walker. Meanwhile, Karen Carney, Sue Smith, Courtney Sweetman-Kirk and Laura Bassett will give analysis throughout the tournament.
They will also be joined by experienced England goalkeeper Karen Bardsley and Manchester City defender Esme Morgan.
The pundits and presenters will work from the Sky Sports Women’s Euro 2022 Mobile Presentation Bus, which will follow the Sky Sports News team around the country to the various stadiums where matches are being played.
In addition, Sky Sports’ Essential Football Podcast will be rebranded for the tournament to Sky Sports Women’s Euros Podcast from 21 June. Hosted by Charlotte Marsh and Anton Toloui, it will feature exclusive news and player interviews in addition to a strong programme line-up around the tournament.
Euro 2022: The groups…
Group A: England, Austria, Norway, Northern Ireland
Group B: Germany, Denmark, Spain, Finland
Group C: Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal, Switzerland
Group D: France, Italy, Belgium, Iceland
Euro 2022: The group-stage schedule…
Wednesday July 6
Group A: England vs Austria – kick off 8pm, Old Trafford
Thursday July 7
Group A: Norway vs Northern Ireland – kick off 8pm, St Mary’s
Friday July 8
Group B: Spain vs Finland – kick off 5pm, Stadium MK
Group B: Germany vs Denmark – kick off 8pm, London Community Stadium
Saturday July 9
Group C: Portugal vs Switzerland – kick off 5pm, Leigh Sports Village
Group C: Netherlands vs Sweden – kick off 8pm, Bramall Lane
Sunday July 10
Group D: Belgium vs Iceland – kick off 5pm, Manchester City Academy Stadium
Group D: France vs Italy – kick off 8pm, New York Stadium
Monday July 11
Group A: Austria vs Northern Ireland – kick off 5pm, St Mary’s
Group A: England v Norway – kick off 8pm, Brighton and Hove Community Stadium
Tuesday July 12
Group B: Denmark vs Finland – kick off 5pm, Stadium MK
Group B: Germany vs Spain – kick off 8pm, London Community Stadium
Wednesday July 13
Group C: Sweden vs Switzerland – kick off 5pm, Bramall Lane
Group C: Netherlands v Portugal – kick off 8pm, Leigh Sports Village
Thursday July 14
Group D: Italy vs Iceland – kick off 5pm, Manchester City Academy Stadium
Group D: France vs Belgium – kick off 8pm, New York Stadium
Friday July 15
Group A: Northern Ireland v England – kick off 8pm, St Mary’s
Group A: Austria vs Norway – kick off 8pm, Brighton and Hove Community Stadium
Saturday July 16
Group B: Finland vs Germany – kick off 8pm, Stadium MK
Group B: Denmark vs Spain – kick off 8pm, London Community Stadium
Sunday July 17
Group C: Switzerland vs Netherlands – kick off 5pm, Bramall Lane
Group C: Sweden vs Portugal – kick off 5pm, Leigh Sports Village
Monday July 18
Group D: Iceland vs France – kick off 8pm, New York Stadium
Group D: Italy vs Belgium – kick off 8pm, Manchester City Academy Stadium
View the knock-out timetable here.