SOUTHAMPTON, England — When Northern Ireland qualified for Euro 2022, they did so behind closed doors. The pandemic meant that friends, family and fans couldn’t be present to watch them make history and qualify for their first ever major tournament.
Towards the end of the second half of that qualification match, when it looked like they had secured the victory, car horns started blaring outside Windsor Park. In the quiet surrounds of the fanless stadium, it had an electrifying quality. It was the fans letting the team know they were there and they were watching and they were ready to support them all the way.
And it was a remarkable feat. Of the squad who qualified, 16 players were home-based. Coming into the team’s Euros debut on Thursday, the Northern Ireland Football Association set up an intensive professional training camp for all those players who were playing in amateur set ups. Anyone in the squad without a professional club had access to physiotherapy, cryospa treatments and psychology sessions.
“We had amateur players who were going to work in supermarkets, in hospitals,” coach Kenny Shiels said after they qualified. “The majority of our squad is made up of that and I have to say, when you look at it in that perspective, it makes the achievement ridiculous.”
Having already done the impossible, this side wanted to make it clear that they weren’t in the tournament just to make up numbers and they showed that on Thursday against Norway. They lost 4-1 to a very talented Norwegian side, but the debutantes fought back after a tough start, proving why they had reached the first major tournament in the team’s history.
Martin Sjogren’s Norwegian side is stacked with international talent. For many, the main storyline of the night was Ada Hegerberg’s return to a major tournament after five years of declining to compete with her national side. In some ways, it allowed Northern Ireland to build away quietly as the focus was on their star-studded opposition. Add to this that Northern Ireland and Norway were in the same qualifying group where Norway had thrashed them 6-0 both times they met, and there wasn’t a lot expected of Shiels’ side tonight.
The gulf between the two sides was clear as day in the opening 13 minutes when Norway scored two goals in quick succession, making light work of the Northern Ireland defense who didn’t cover themselves in glory. Julie Blackstad fired a low shot under Jackie Burns’ legs to get Norway off the ground before Frida Maanum doubled on 13 minutes when Burns played a short pass to Chloe McCarron who let Maanum take the ball off her and after a quick one-two with Hegerberg , found the empty net.
It seemed like the script had been written for the game and that Norway were going to easily keep banging the goals in — but Northern Ireland once again showed their grit at the start of the second half. They won their first corner of the game and as the ball pinwheeled around the box, Rachel Furness skewed a shot which flew towards the head of unmarked Julie Nelson and she steered it into the net. The Northern Ireland fans who to their credit had been loud since before the game kicked off — erupted as the players celebrated on the pitch.
It may have just been one goal in a match that was particularly close, but it represented a bigger moment for Northern Ireland. Its scorer Nelson has been with the squad for 18 years, making her debut in 2004. She has 125 caps to her name and most of those she has been an amateur player. She works with the Irish FA in their development programme, bringing up the next generation. Not only was her goal historic for her country, it also made her the oldest ever goal scorer at the tournament at 37 years and 33 days old.
It was ironic in some sense that all eyes were on Nelson at this moment with Hegerberg on the pitch. When Hegerberg walked away from the squad in 2017, they had crashed out of the Euros group stage for the second time ever in their history. They had played 270 minutes without a goal or a point. It was n’t this disappointment that made her walk but larger issues with how her football association were treating its women. She stayed away until this year, making a dramatic return that few saw coming.
She announced her return with a hat trick in her first match back in March, and there was a feeling that she might do the same tonight. While her first hat trick was a fairytale return, doing it on the world stage in a major tournament would have been the perfect way to continue her story with Norway. In the opening moments though, it was the players around her that she served.
Hegerberg got the assist for Maanum’s goal and while she was taking shots of her own, she also seemed happy to let the spotlight shine on her teammates. When Norway were awarded a penalty, it was Caroline Graham Hansen who stepped up to the spot and not Hegerberg.
Hegerberg did find the net in the second half but it was disallowed for offside and there was something in the slump of her shoulders that showed she knew it wasn’t going to be every night. It will perhaps play on the minds of Norway heading into their game against England that they didn’t take better advantage of a Northern Ireland side who were largely there for the taking.
Norway had 65% of the possession throughout the match and 21 shots compared to just four from Northern Ireland. The goal they let in was poor — Nelson had been left entirely unmarked — and it easy to imagine that a better team, such as England, would make light of those opportunities.
“I’m very happy we scored four to be honest. I’m more disappointed we let the goal in. If you look at the way the game went, I was very happy with the first half,” Sjogren said after the game. “I think the first 45 minutes, we could have scored more goals.
“In the second half, I think Northern Ireland bounced back a bit and we got sloppy especially in the build up which is what happened before the goal on the corner. If you do it too many times at this level, you get punished which we did. But we bounced back.”
Norway settled some of their demons from 2017 but on a historic night, it was Northern Ireland who shined brighter and gave us something to talk about. An injury to their star striker Simone Magill may curtail more success for them in the tournament — but they showed up. Hegerberg and Norway will have to wait another few days for their time to shine, but the talent is there to know that it is coming.