Northern Ireland are celebrating a "dream come true" after sealing progress from a UEFA European Women's Under-17 Championship mini-tournament for the first time.
The hosts, who drew with England and beat Italy earlier in the week, topped first qualfying round Group 2 with a 4-1 victory against Israel at the Coleraine Showgrounds on Saturday. Afterwards, manager Alison Nicholl said she was "over the moon" to have secured Northern Ireland's place in the second qualifying round draw, which will be held on 20 November.
"I can't quite believe it; it hasn't sunk in," she said. "It's the first time we have progressed in the competition, so it is a dream come true. I am really proud of the girls. We were in a tough group so it is a great achievement."
Nicholl's team drew their opening game 0-0 with England before beating the Italians 1-0 thanks to a goal from striker Moya Feehan. Two long-range strikes from Chloe Mccarron and further goals from Amy Burden and Aimee Mackin then secured the 4-1 win against Israel, who finished bottom of the pool.
"Italy were one of the tournament favourites, so to beat them in our second pool game was a real highlight for me," said the manager. "The girls have performed way beyond what was expected of them. This will give them a lot of confidence looking ahead to the next round."
"We knew it would be a tough task in the pool, but our confidence grew throughout the week," added captain Aoife Curran. "Drawing with England got us off to a great start and then beating Italy gave us the belief we could go on to top the group. We have worked very hard and it's a terrific achievement reaching the next round. We'll really look forward to that challenge."
Italy completed the pool as runners-up, a point off top spot, with a 4-1 victory against England at the Ballymena Showgrounds. England coach Lois Fidler was disappointed to finish third in the group but praised the quality of football in the week-long mini-tournament.
"One thing I have noticed is that the standard has just got better and better, which is fantastic for the game," she said. "Other countries are definitely catching up and full credit has to go to Northern Ireland who have improved significantly. The Italians were also excellent. They showed their quality and unfortunately exposed us in our last group game."
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