Northern Ireland made history by beating Ukraine at Seaview to reach the finals of Euro 2022 in England.
Marissa Callaghan and Nadene Caldwell scored to give Kenny Shiels’ side a 2-0 win on the night and a 4-1 victory on aggregate in the two-legged play-off.
Captain Callaghan tucked home on 55 minutes and Caldwell netted in injury time to secure the win against Ukraine, who had Natiya Pantsulaya sent off.
The Euro 2022 finals will be Northern Ireland’s first major tournament.
It caps a remarkable 17-year journey for Northern Ireland, whose women’s national team only reformed in 2004.
After a goalless first-half, Callaghan broke the deadlock 10 minutes into the second-half when she beat Ukraine goalkeeper Kateryna Samson to the ball and slotted into the empty net.
It was a goal which perfectly summed up Northern Ireland’s persistence as Callaghan won the initial header from Julie Nelson’s free-kick before showing awareness to get to the second ball ahead of the sleeping Ukraine defence to give the home side the cushion they craved.
Caldwell secured the victory after Pantsulaya was sent-off late on. Simone Magill won the ball on the edge of the area and Caldwell, who had just come on the pitch as a substitute, beat the stranded Samson to spark wild celebrations.
Wild celebrations at full-time
The celebrations at full-time marked an unbelievable journey for a team who were written off before a ball was kicked in qualifying.
Moments such as Ashley Hutton’s last-minute goal against Wales or a superb 1-0 victory away to Belarus with 10 players demonstrate where the unwavering belief stems from.
From arriving in May 2019, Shiels and his coaching team, which includes son Dean, have done a remarkable job changing the mentality and tactics of this side.
For players like Julie Nelson, who has been through thick and thin since making her debut 17 years ago, it has been a life-long dream.
For younger players like McKenna or McCarron, this will a high point in their fledgling careers that they hope will be the first of many.
It’s impossible to name every player but it has been a real team effort to get to this point – and every player in a green shirt played their part.
It was an occasion and performance which deserved a packed house at Seaview, but this history-making team can expect the Green and White Army to follow their every move for years to come.
This team dared to dream, and now they will enjoy every moment of the reward they have worked so hard to achieve.
Relaxed NI always in control
Northern Ireland, ranked 25 places below their opponents, looked relaxed from the first whistle as they went about finishing the job they began by securing a lead in Ukraine.
Just as in Kovalivka, Northern Ireland came flying at their opponents right from the first whistle, with Kirsty McGuinness and Simone Magill harrying Ukraine’s defence.
The positive approach settled any lingering nerves, and while manager Shiels is renowned for his enterprising style of football, it was a direct approach from set plays which gave his side half openings.
Laura Rafferty, one of two changes from the first leg, was inches away from opening the scoring when she poked wide after the ball dropped to the defender from an early corner.
Again, in a similar pattern to the first leg, Ukraine grew into the match and began to dominate the midfield as the half wore on.
Despite Ukraine’s growing possession on the artificial pitch, Northern Ireland looked comfortable in defence and Magill, who had a shot comfortably saved by Kateryna Samson, and Callaghan provided an outlet for Shiels’ side.
Rebecca McKenna, on her 20th birthday, continued where she left off from the first leg and Rebecca Holloway had the best first-half performance of her short NI career to date as both players were tasked with providing width in both attack and defence.
However, it was the experienced head of Nelson who made the most-important intervention of the first half when she superbly denied Olha Ovdiychuk with some last-ditch defending following a rare lapse of concentration for NI just before the half-time whistle.
Hitting their stride in the second half
Cheered on in the stands by the vocal Rachel Furness, who missed the match after sustaining a broken ankle in the first leg, NI came out for the second-half like and looked like a team with the weight off their shoulders.
That soon turned to pandemonium when Callaghan showed tremendous persistence to beat Samson to the ball and score – a goal that meant Ukraine had to net three times to overcome their opponents.
It was akin to when men’s captain Steven Davis scored twice against Greece in 2015 to fire Northern Ireland to the Euro 2016 finals in France as Callaghan led from the front.
Northern Ireland dropped deep but still looked in command as the visitors ran out of ideas as the clock ticked down.
They put plenty of crosses into the danger area but goalkeeper Jackie Burns and the defensive trio of Rafferty, Nelson and Ashley Hutton stood strong as NI began to pick Ukraine off on the counter.
Chloe McCarron’s cross was just out of reach of Magill and Ukraine were reduced to 10 players when Pantsulaya was dismissed for cutting across the outstanding Sarah McFadden as she raced through on goal.
Caldwell then struck in the final seconds to spark jubilant scenes and cap off a superb display as Shiels’ team continue to outshine their underdog status.