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Women's football in Northern Ireland

Reaching the UEFA Women's EURO for the first time this summer could be a watershed moment in the development of the game in Northern Ireland.

Getty Images

History

Laying foundations

Ranked 32nd out of 47 qualifying entrants, and seeded fourth of five in their group, few predicted that Northern Ireland would make it to UEFA Women's EURO 2022. But they did just that, holding Wales twice and beating Belarus home and away in their group, then celebrating a 4-1 aggregate play-off success against Ukraine. The plan now is for that qualifying success to be a launchpad to establish the game in Northern Ireland, not least with the appointment of former international Angela Platt as the first director of women's football at the Irish Football Association (IFA), alongside a female pillar in their five-year corporate strategy.

Best UEFA competition performance

Northern Ireland players celebrate qualification for UEFA Women's EURO 2022
Northern Ireland players celebrate qualification for UEFA Women's EURO 2022Getty Images

Senior: UEFA Women's EURO qualification (2022)
Youth: UEFA Women's Under-19 Championship group stage (2017)

Role model

Marissa Callaghan not only captained Northern Ireland to their first women's final tournament but also works full time for the IFA as girls' participation officer, developing opportunities for girls to get involved in football as she inspires the next generation both on and off the pitch.

"We need to make sure that we get out and about to the local clubs and schools – wherever we can go. We want the young girls to see us and get inspired. I think that's the legacy we want to leave in the next year."

Milestone moments

On the pitch…

The celebrations were wild at Belfast's Seaview stadium on 13 April 2021 as Nadene Caldwell struck in added time to confirm Northern Ireland's play-off success against Ukraine. The players ran over to the sidelines to join several injured squad-mates, including key performers like Rachel Furness, further emphasising the scale of their unlikely achievement.

… and off it 

After several years in abeyance, the Northern Ireland women's team was revived and competed at the 2004 Algarve Cup under Alfie Wylie, who was to remain coach for 15 years.

Game changer

Having not entered a Women's EURO since 1991, Northern Ireland made a tilt at the 2009 edition, got through the preliminary round and ended up in a qualifying group with England, whom they will now meet at the 2022 finals in Southampton. The squad's semi-professional players have been able to train full time since January in preparation for that game and their other Group A contests, raising hopes for Northern Ireland's place among the elite to be more than fleeting.

Here and now

Junior/senior: Playing perspectives

Ashley Hutton and Rebecca McKenna
Ashley Hutton and Rebecca McKennaUEFA

We compare and contrast the experiences of players at the opposite ends of their careers as they reflect on their journeys and what is to come at this summer’s tournament.

Ashley Hutton, 34, has been a Northern Ireland international for 17 years, reaching the 100-cap mark in September 2019, while 21-year-old Rebecca McKenna is one of the youngest members of the squad.

Hutton: "When I started with the national team, we were buying our own kit to go to the Algarve Cup."

McKenna: "I came in at the stage where women’s football was really starting to come on and that’s probably where I got lucky. I’m now playing in front of sold-out crowds, we’re getting looked after well, and we have more backing."

Compare their careers so far

Against the odds

Julie Nelson
Julie NelsonUEFA

At 37, Julie Nelson is one of Northern Ireland’s most experienced players. Having made her international debut in 2004, she surpassed the 100-cap mark in September 2018, and went on to earn a British Empire Medal (BEM) for her services to the game in 2021.But when she embarked on her own journey as a talented youngster, being part of Northern Ireland’s first appearance at a UEFA Women’s EURO seemed an unlikely prospect.

Julie Nelson's story

Joining the game in Northern Ireland

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How you can play

Trailblazers exhibition

WEURO Trailblazers: Northern Ireland

"Trailblazers" is a unique exhibition that showcases the work of European artists given a blank canvas to celebrate women’s football. UEFA invited artists from participating nations in this summer’s tournament to create an image inspired by the game in their country. Northern Ireland's representative is Alana McDowell: "I wanted to create a piece that portrayed the optimism and true spirit of the Northern Irish people and the team. So central to my piece is the word GOAL, the 'O' doubling as the instantly recognisable NI logo, surrounded by lots of movement and figures in various acts of play and celebration! My dad was obsessed with football so my entire childhood was filled with chants of George Best and football constantly on the TV in the background. My uncle, Tommy Wright played in the Premier League for Newcastle United and Manchester City as well as for the Northern Ireland team - football was huge in our family!"

Investing for the future

Irish Football Association (IFA) women's football strategy

Women's and girls' football is one of seven strategic pillars in the IFA's 2022–2027 corporate strategy.

Its five key objectives are:

* Create a top-class women's competition and pathway
* Embed the new director of women's football role across the IFA
* Introduce licensing for women's clubs and a Club Mentor programme at all levels of the game
* Recruit and retain women in coaching, match officiating and administration roles at all levels of the game
* Create a bespoke communications plan for the women's game with every youth programme having specific advertising and publicity to encourage girls

Download the IFA's corporate strategy for girls' and women's football 2022–2027

Women's Football Development Programme (WFDP)

Since 2010, UEFA's WFDP has provided associations with funding and tools to increase participation, improve standards and build infrastructure to help keep the female game growing. One example of a project funded by the WFDP programme in Northern Ireland is…

Shooting Stars (2017–20)

The Shooting Stars programme provides a fun introduction to football for girls aged between four and seven. It was launched with four main objectives: to increase girls' participation, hold school festival days, set up local centres in every region and create links to local clubs for player pathways and sustained participation.

Four hundred girls who had never played football before regularly attended Shooting Stars centres, which were set up in every council area of Northern Ireland, while more than 6,000 girls participated in regional festivals. Other highlights included the first girls-only summer camps and new girls' clubs being established in geographical areas with a particular need.