Shiels left to pinch himself as Northern Ireland make history

Manager justly proud as squad made up largely of part-time players qualify for Euro 2022

Northern Ireland women celebrate their qualification for the 2022 European Championships following their victory over Ukraine in the  play-off second leg at  Seaview Stadium, Belfast.  Photograph: William Cherry/Pressye/Inpho

Northern Ireland women celebrate their qualification for the 2022 European Championships following their victory over Ukraine in the play-off second leg at Seaview Stadium, Belfast. Photograph: William Cherry/Pressye/Inpho

 

The congratulations poured forth from members of the Republic of Ireland squad on Tuesday night after events at Seaview where Northern Ireland earned qualification for their first ever major tournament, the celebrations at the full-time whistle of the very lovely and joyous kind.

Much and all as they might have been chuffed for Kenny Shiels’ team, though, the Republic’s players wouldn’t have been human if there wasn’t a touch of the envious neighbours about them.

After all, the team that NI beat in the two-legged play-off was the very same one that, ultimately, ended the Republic’s hopes of reaching the play-offs for next year’s finals in England, Ukraine’s 1-0 win in Kiev last October, courtesy of a calamitous Irish own goal, resulting in the mother of all missed opportunities.

Under Shiels’ guidance, though, NI have taken every opportunity presented to them in a six-match winning run that saw them beat Wales to second place in their group and then get the better of Ukraine home and away.

And they came through those play-offs without eight injured players, four of whom would have been certain starters, severely limiting Shiels’ options when they were already limited enough.

Fifteen of his 23-strong squad are part-time players in local football, none of them playing a competitive game since their league ended in December. The other eight play in England, but just four are with top flight clubs – and only two of those, Simone Magill at Everton and Rebecca Holloway at Birmingham City, are getting regular football.

Add in the fact that NI were the 32nd seeded team out of the 48 attempting to qualify for Euro 2022, are ranked 49th in the world, 26 places below Ukraine, and have now taken one of the 16 Euro finals spots, then Shiels and his players’ achievement is pretty remarkable.

For the Derry man, it’s just the latest chapter in a story that, by now, would need several volumes to tell.

When the 64-year-old was appointed to the job in May 2019, an eyebrow or two was raised, his only involvement of note in the women’s game until then a spell with Crusaders Strikers when they played in the Uefa Cup back in 2003.

Having played his whole career with Northern Irish clubs, he took on his first managerial challenge in 1987. It wasn’t quite a salubrious one.

“I took over a village team called Upperlands. It wasn’t even a football village but I went into that job as if I was taking over Manchester United,” he said.

Youth development

“Guys with beer bellies from around the village became fit and we went and won the Constitution Cup.”

(Upperlands, incidentally is also where his wife Gwen is from, football doing the match-making: “We got together after I saw her play ladies’ football – what a left foot!”).

From there, his travels took him to a host of clubs in Northern Ireland, a spell as the head of youth development at Tranmere Rovers, a shift as Northern Ireland under-17 coach, two stints in Scotland (with Kilmarnock and Morton), three years with Derry City, with three months in charge of BEC Tero Sasana of Thailand squeezed in.

And along the way, there’s rarely been a dull moment, Shiels never shy about expressing his opinions, feather-ruffling, or letting rip – whether the targets be officials, opposing managers or players, the media, whatever.

For instance in 2016: “International football’s not what it used to be. There’s no pride in it any more because you could have a pint of Guinness and play for Ireland. It doesn’t interest me one bit. The Republic of Ireland are England reserves and Northern Ireland are England’s reserves’ reserves. It’s diabolical. I’ve no time for it all.”

How well did that go down with James McClean? Guess. (“He should be viewed as a comedian!”).

A fascinating man, though, he has a degree in psychology from Warwick University (“but Alex Ferguson has a Masters in it – he maybe just doesn’t have the piece of paper”) and loves his music with a passion (he’s a devotee of the late singer-songwriter John Prine – “I was lucky enough to meet him once, in Donegal, though I was quite inebriated”).

In an interview with The Scotsman back in 2012, he quoted a Prine song when referencing the bleakest passage in his family’s history when, in 1990, his brother Dave, whose wife had given birth to their son Stephen just a month before, was shot dead by the IRA – who later apologised, saying it was a case of “mistaken identity”.

“Have I drawn strength from what happened? I’m not sure. Football can be an emotional rollercoaster and maybe when things go wrong you do say, ‘well, this could be worse’– because once upon a time it was. As the song says, “you carry those bruises to remind you wherever you go”.”

The rollercoaster reached its peak point for Shiels on Tuesday night. There will have been those who scoffed at his career trajectory when he took on this job, at a point when the team appeared to be going nowhere fast.

Such were his emotions after the game, you’d a notion this meant as much to him as any of his achievements, stretching all the way back to the days he managed the Upperlands beer bellies to the Constitution Cup.

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