Northern Ireland are making their Women's EURO debut this summer – in their squad are Ashley Hutton and Rebecca McKenna, who have had very different journeys in their careers so far…
Article top media content
Hutton, 34, has been a Northern Ireland international for 17 years, reaching the 100-cap mark in September 2019. Having recovered from an anterior cruciate ligament injury last summer, she is preparing for Northern Ireland's first senior international tournament finals. At 21, McKenna has already amassed 20 international caps since her debut in February 2018, and is one of the youngest members of the squad.
How did you start playing football?
Hutton: I’d watched my dad play when I was younger, but my first sport was actually rugby and it got to the point where I couldn’t play with the boys anymore, when I was about 11. Then, I started to take football seriously, at around 12, and went through all the youth categories, like the schools, Under-17, Under-19, and then seniors, at 16. That’s basically how my journey started.
McKenna: I'm a bit similar with starting with the boys, but then I wasn’t allowed to play for the boys anymore. I had to move on to Bangor, then I obviously started playing senior football, so from there, basically, yeah.
How have facilities and professionalism changed since you started playing?
Hutton: As kids, we had shirts that were hanging off us and they were massive – I don’t know what size but like a medium, at least, men’s size. When I started with the national team, we were buying our own kit to go to the likes of the Algarve Cup in Portugal, and now, we have the best kit. We have our own women’s shirt for the EURO. Even with the last kit, the women got to play in it before the men. So, it just shows you how much the women’s game has come along in the last five or six years. Also, the facilities were nothing compared to what we have at the minute. The fans too, for the England game (in April) we sold out Windsor Park and for us before there was probably only a couple of hundred people and that was it. It’s exciting for the young ones coming through that they’re possibly going to be selling out Windsor Park for every international match. They’ve got so much to look forward to.
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 now, and we have more backing now. I think I came in at a pretty good time [but] it shows the character [of the older players] that even when times got tough, they all stuck it out and it has paid off for them now. For all of them to get to play in their first major tournament, I think it’s a surreal moment for them. We just sit back and watch the things they do, how they train, how professional they are - that’s what you strive towards being.
Ashley, what advice would you offer to Rebecca and the younger players?
Hutton: Just enjoy it and have fun. Work hard and give it your all and anything can happen. Dreams can come true, just like Northern Ireland qualifying for the Women's EURO. It happened for me, and it can happen to anyone - it’s just believing in yourself.
Did you have women to look up to when you were starting out?
Hutton: It was probably more men’s football that I looked up to. I’m a Manchester United supporter - the likes of Roy Keane, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. Then, when I went to the Arsenal academy, the likes of Kelly Smith, but that was when I was 16, she would have been something of a role model for me, but it was mainly male dominant.
Rebecca, it must have been different for you?
McKenna: At the time that I came through, women’s football was coming along a lot more, so I was getting more familiarised with all the more experienced players like Hutts [Ashley Hutton], Furny [Rachel Furness], and Simone [Magill], people like that. So, for me, just looking up to the more experienced ones has helped me come a long way.
A final question for both of you – how do you feel playing at your first UEFA Women's EURO?
McKenna: We just have to look forward to it, live in the moment and just enjoy the whole experience. When we qualify for a major tournament, it just makes us strive to do it more in the future, and they’re exciting times.
Hutton: I’m excited. It’s something that I never thought would ever happen in my career. We want to make sure that we go in and put in a good account of ourselves. We are going to be the underdogs, but we want to go and show Europe how good we are and why we’re there. We’re just going to go and soak up the atmosphere and obviously, as a team, we’re going to enjoy those moments and they’re going to be moments and memories that will last for years and years. We watched our men's team qualify in 2016 and it was their dream, and now, it’s our new dream.