The Northern Ireland women's team ended a 14-year absence from competition internationals when Alfie Wylie was appointed their first full-time manager in 2005, yet in their last campaign they came third in their 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup qualifying group with 11 points.
They return to action on Saturday when they launch their UEFA Women's EURO 2013 bid against Bulgaria, with Iceland, Norway, Hungary and Belgium also in their group. Wylie spoke to UEFA.com about his side's development and hopes for the coming campaign.
UEFA.com: What do you think of your group?
Alfie Wylie: It's a great opportunity we have. We haven't played Belgium, Norway or Hungary, but Norway is going to be the big test – they are the No2 seed behind Germany. But it is a great opportunity for football in Northern Ireland, for everyone to see how we are developing. It will open everyone's eyes in our country to what the standard is across Europe. We were trying very hard with a very young side, average age is just 20 with three 16-year-olds in World Cup qualifiers. So exciting times ahead and it gives everyone in the country a real buzz with the countries that are going to come to visit us.
UEFA.com: Earlier this year you played in the week-long Cyprus Women's Cup, meeting teams such as World Cup qualifiers Mexico, South Korea, Russia and Switzerland ...
Wylie: Very unusual for us, the longest we've ever been together. It was fantastic to be working with the girls and to see how far we have come. We played an Asian country, a South American country, an eastern European country – it was a great test of all the different styles we come up against. We never get half a dozen training sessions back to back like we did when we were away so it was a great chance for the girls to develop, for us to work with them, to find out more about them and them about us in challenging conditions. It was a great experience and I am delighted the [Irish Football Association] permitted us to do it and I thank the [organising Scottish Football Association] for the invite.
UEFA.com: Your results have been encouraging recently ...
Wylie: We've come on. It used to be if you had a shot for us you were the leading goalscorer! But we were one of four countries that scored in every game in Cyprus so it was great. We kept four clean sheets in World Cup qualifiers and scored goals so we are getting better all round. We are still a long way short of the top counties but you are only going to get better if you play better countries and the lowest country in our group is 49th [in the FIFA rankings] and we're 64th so it is a good chance for us.
UEFA.com: How much benefit is it to have players like Rachel Furness and Sarah McFadden playing in leagues outside Northern Ireland?
Wylie: It's a great benefit, but the big test now is when those players come home they are not noticeably better than the locals whereas in the past you'll have seen a marked difference. I think that's to the credit of the girls, how hard they have worked at their local clubs who have supported us in raising standards all the way.
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