Northern Ireland coach Alfie Wylie believes "exciting times lie ahead" after a week in which his young team stunned two-time European champions Norway and gave themselves a real chance of qualifying for UEFA Women's EURO 2013.
Having returned to top-level qualifying for the 2009 tournament, picking up one point in eight games, Northern Ireland subsequently had a promising FIFA Women's World Cup campaign. However, it was nothing to compare with what happened last Saturday in Lurgan, when they produced arguably the competition's biggest-ever shock with goals from Kirsty McGuinness, Ashley Hutton and Rachel Furness clinching a 3-1 victory over the Norwegians.
Four days later they led by two in Hungary before being pegged back to 2-2 yet still lie third in Group 3 and success in Belgium on 15 February would lift them into a play-off position. Wylie believes "anything is now possible" for a squad that fielded five teenagers against Hungary, starting with three 17-year-olds – Alexandra Hurst, Simone Magill and McGuinness – and midfielder Aoife Lennon, 18.
"I am so proud of the players," said Wylie. "We started this campaign as the lowest seed in the group, but we have made a positive impact with what is a young panel of players. I remember when we were drawn in this pool, people said to me, 'Oh dear, that's a tough one.'
Nobody gave us a chance, but we are still in contention with important games to come.
"I suppose we viewed this campaign as a challenge and I am delighted with the way the girls have met that challenge, particularly the younger players. We have a number of teenagers who have been given an opportunity and they have taken that opportunity with both hands."
The manager has been delighted with the "positive media coverage" his side have received. "The victory over Norway, who are ranked 12th in the world, was a landmark result for us in so many ways," he said.
"It was a big result from a football point of view, but it was also important in terms of media exposure. It has given the girls a public profile and recognition which is healthy for the sport. It has also shown the Irish FA that all the hard work that has gone into women's football in Northern Ireland is paying rich dividends.
"We have healthy structures in place at underage levels in women's football and it is providing a conveyor belt of talent for the senior squad. It is clear to see we are beginning to reap the benefits."
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