2023 Women’s World Cup Uefa Qualifying Group D: Northern Ireland v Latvia (Windsor Park, 7 p.m.)
“IF we had the Green and White Army behind us, we would beat America!”
Even the always exuberant Kenny Shiels joked when he said this, adding quickly: “I know this is outrageous”, but the manager of the Northern Ireland women’s team had a serious point under his joke.
The off-pitch numbers are almost as big as Kenny Shiels’s, certainly tonight, although he has insisted they never underestimate anyone.
Winning is what matters most, but the first senior women’s international competition at Windsor Park in nine years isn’t just about the result.
In addition, what happens outside the field can obviously influence the events on it.
“We would go up against anyone if we had the Green and White Army behind us,” Shiels insists. “But if they’re not, that makes it a bit more difficult.
“People don’t realize how much this means to modern young footballers in terms of motivation and how good they feel about themselves. It would be great if we could attract a crowd to Windsor like the men – it would give us more hope, but we will continue to fight. “
Although 16,000 people were allowed in when the men from NI welcomed Switzerland recently, there will likely be a third – at best – as the women welcome Latvia.
Even an attendance of 5,000 “is not enough” for the ambitious boss, although dating has increased. “The South Belfast fan base is geared towards a good crowd and I would like to have a really good crowd. I think we will have 3 to 5,000… which is not enough, but it is progress. The better we do, the more people will be drawn to it. The number of participation in women’s football has increased enormously… It must continue to increase. “
The senior team too.
Shiels might be tempted to aim for an even more eye-catching scoreline than Friday’s 4-0 win over the new Luxembourg girls at Larne.
Latvia finished last in their Euro qualifying group, which also included Sweden, Iceland, Slovakia and Hungary. The Baltic side conceded 39 goals in losing all eight matches – and scored just two goals, one against the powerful Swedes, the other in a 2-1 home loss to the Slovaks.
Latvia actually took the home advantage over Austria on Friday before losing 8-1, but Shiels pointed out that four goals were scored late after the hosts took out three defenders, possibly in thinking about tonight’s game.
However, he plans to mix up his pack for the greater good, not just for tonight’s outcome:
“We’re looking to make some changes. This camp aims to give experience to some girls who need it, to win and to do it in a way that promotes the development of the players of the future. Playing in Windsor for their country is part of that experience.
“We don’t necessarily choose our best team, or our worst team – we want to choose a team in which some of the younger ones develop… and that could come at the expense of some of the more experienced.
“The teams that I put on the pitch have to have a certain growth and a certain experience. I would say that we are the only team in Europe that takes this attitude. We have to think about the future and how we can be better.
“No one is sure they’re on the squad… We have to make sure we get the right mix to get a result. We don’t want to win 12 or 10-0, although the goal difference would help at the junction final.
“If we took out our strongest teams in all of these games, we wouldn’t progress, we would hit a brick wall.”
Latvia is unlikely to present such a formidable barrier – and the crowd should see another victory for the confident hosts.