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Earlier this month, Northern Ireland qualified for a major women's tournament for the first time when they completed a 4-1 aggregate victory over Ukraine in the play-offs.
We talked to midfielder Sarah McFadden, who has played a major role in her side's greatest achievement to date and she spoke to us about their successful campaign and hopes for the future:
WSS: Congratulations from all of us Sarah! Has it sunk in yet, what this Northern Ireland team has achieved and in a relatively short space of time?
SM: Not really to be honest and I don't think it will until we are walking out at the Euros next summer. On Tuesday I was walking into work and I forgot the play-offs were over and we won them. I had to pinch myself, it was as if the past few weeks were a dream!
WSS: How big a difference has Kenny Shiels made since he took over the job?
SM: Kenny and his background staff have been amazing, they have just changed the whole mentality of our team and for us all as individuals, winning is the only option no matter who we play. Every training session we do is always related to how we are going to play and every situation that we might face in that game is covered. The detail we are provided on other teams and how we are going to beat other teams is more than I have ever experienced in all my years of football. When we go into matches, I am not even that nervous any more as I know the sidelines will problem-solve anything and I know what my job is, so I just have to do it.
The main difference and why we have been successful though is the improvement of the home-based players training three to four times a week with Kenny and his team. They have all shown so much dedication over the past year and that has shown in their performances, with seven of them starting in the play-off games last month and many others being used throughout the campaign. They have stepped up and it's really showing when you now have such competition across the squad and this improves everyone.
WSS: The group didn't start well with two heavy defeats against Norway, but that turn out to be a blessing in disguise?
SM:We got a lot of confidence out of both games, even though we did suffer heavy defeats. We didn't change our philosophy and it was really early in our journey. We knew if we could play out from the back through the midfield against Norway, we could do it against anyone in our group. Again it was about us not being scared to do anything against them and that has helped us for the remainder of the campaign.
WSS: Do you think that the 2-2 draw away to Wales was a pivotal moment for you, performance wise as well as the result?
SM: At the time we didn't realise how important Ashley Hutton's goal would have been. We played very well and I don't think Wales expected us to play how we did. We went toe to toe with a team of professional players and matched them all over the field and that give us confidence again. Only a few years previously we had played Wales and got beaten well off them twice. They were far superior to us so again the improvement in such a short time was evident for all of us to see.
WSS: After a great win in Belarus, was that the moment that you felt you could get the runners-up spot?
SM: When our keeper got sent off, I am not going to lie, I thought the dream was over but then Furney [Rachel Furness] scored that header at the back post and that's when I thought this is written in the stars for us. After the game - I wish it was filmed - but we all stood holding each other, praying and watching the Norway v Wales game knowing that if Norway beat Wales it was back in our hands. When the result came through, it was when we thought this is our time, we are going to do this.
WSS: Many people have said that your win in the first leg in Ukraine was Northern Ireland's greatest ever win, would you go along with that?
SM: For sure, due to the nature of the game and the pressure that comes with a play-off, the fact Ukraine are ranked 24th in the world and had been to three previous play-offs and we won the game like seasoned pros. At international level we have never played a game at this sort of level and pressure, most of our players are young and inexperienced, we had six squad members injured, of which three of these would have started. With all these things to consider it was by far Northern Ireland's greatest win. It was for sure an underdog story.
WSS: The maturity and control the team showed in the second leg was admirable, did you always feel that everything was under control during that match?
SM: For the majority of the first half I was a little worried, I just felt that Ukraine came out flying and were playing so much faster than the away leg. When we got to half time with 0-0 and rode the storm, that's when I thought I don't think they can play any faster than that so now we can up our game and get a goal. Once Marissa scored I knew we were going to win the tie. Ukraine's heads went, confidence drained from them, even though nothing had really changed we had something else to defend now and we were in control until the end. When you have two experienced and outstanding CB's like Julie Nelson and Ashley Hutton behind you it gives you lots of confidence.
WSS: When considering you have also been missing several key players for most of the group matches, let alone the play-offs, does that make it an even better achievement?
SM: There has been such a strong emphasis on the squad from day one and now we know why it has been so important. If you look at Rebecca McKenna she epitomises what our squad has been about. Rebecca didn't even get selected for some squads throughout the campaign. She could have easily given up but she didn't she waited for her chance and when it came in the two biggest games of the campaign and our lives she stood up and was our best player over the two play-off games. Before the last two games, if you had said to us we would have won the play-offs without our best player in Rachel Furness I would have said no chance. Then again our captain stands up, has the game of her life, plays in Rachel's position in the last game of the play-offs and scores the goal to help take us through. So although we had injuries it was so nice to see people step up and do what they could for the team. Everyone was so tuned in on their roles and responsibilities that all of us had every confidence. This is what we have been all about all campaign and it's the reason we have got to where we are everyone has the same goals and willing to do what they can to win.
WSS: How confident are you that Northern Ireland can build on this and qualify for more tournaments in the future, are there many good youngsters coming through at youth levels?
SM: Now with Kenny in charge, the youngsters are improving so quickly and are in the best position to develop and step up over the next 2-3 years. We are only going to improve and the fact we are now in higher pots means we will hopefully have better chance in future qualification. We don't want to stop here, this is only the start, from the outside people probably think we will be happy to make up the numbers next summer in England and happy not to qualify again but while Kenny is in charge, that won't be enough ever. We are all going to work hard this year and continue to build on this. We want to create a legacy in the future for all the boys and girls coming through in Northern Ireland that making up the numbers is never enough.
Other than the five oldies in myself, Julie, Rachel, Ashley and Marissa, the rest of the squad are young and have a great chance to build on this and continue to qualify. For the old girls, there will come a day when we stop playing but while Kenny is in charge, I think most of us will have to be forced out eventually rather than retiring voluntarily. We have learned so much over the past few years and just want to keep playing and improving because playing for Northern Ireland at the minute is the best experience of our lives and we don't want to give it up!
Our thanks to Sarah!
Photo - Irish FA/PressEye
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