Euro 2022: lifetime goal, broken leg and Panini stickers – inside historic NI victory
Rachel Furness is Northern Ireland’s top scorer and helped Kenny Shiels’ side make history by qualifying for Euro 2022, NI’s first-ever women’s major tournament.
It was the worst 96 minutes of my life, followed by the best night of my life.
We’ve been dreaming about it for so long and now Northern Ireland is going to Euro 2022. I can’t believe what we just did, it still doesn’t feel real.
I joined the team in 2005 as a 16 year old girl who loved to play for my country. I’ve had lows in Northern Ireland, and although there have been lows, nothing can ever get past that.
I hugged Simone Magill on the halfway line after Tuesday’s game and realized we had. We had been saying to each other for a while that it was like it was meant to be.
The number of times we’ve been challenged, the serious injuries we’ve had – we’ve been tested so much and we’ve been through it all as a team.
Missing the second game as Seaview on Tuesday with a broken leg was tough. I am definitely a better player than I am a spectator.
I tried to steer and hit every ball from the stands. I think a lot of the girls on the bench had headaches with me sitting behind them. I was hoping my positivity was passing and I wanted to help them cross that line.
We are like a family, the solidarity of this whole team is something that I had never experienced before. We could knock out any team and the girls on the bench would have been just as thrilled the players were leaving.
We are a tight-knit team and we have all embraced this journey. When you step out onto the field, you fight for everything and you throw yourself in front of every ball.
I broke my leg in the first game and would do it again for the win. I think all girls would be exactly the same because we all want the same for each other.
The Kenny effect
Kenny Shiels and his coaching staff deserve so much credit. They are the unsung heroes of our trip.
A few years ago I would have said we had no chance of making it to a major tournament, but here we are.
Kenny and the staff believed in us as footballers, as players and as people. They demanded that we play football, they demanded that we make mistakes and they demanded that we improve.
After the final qualifier in December Kenny said he wanted more and we all wanted to go further. We were amazed to have made history but we were not happy to catch up with the play-offs, we were immediately looking at how we were going to get to the final. I love this mentality.
I’ve never been a part of something like this, so together and so special. They are geniuses with tactics and you want to do whatever you can to be a part of this team.
If you look at my goal in Ukraine, a foreigner might say he was lucky because the defender passed it to me in his box, but you don’t realize the level of detail Kenny and his team put in.
We set ourselves up in a way for when Ukraine played from behind and yes it was a bad patch, but I was asked to be there.
Of course, I couldn’t believe it five minutes into the game, but it calmed us down and set the tone for the rest of the game.
It was not a pretty game but it gave us a reason to fight. It lifted us all up and it was a well executed plan.
And then there was the injury. I have to be dragged off the pitch to go out, especially for my country. I want to play every second.
There was so much adrenaline and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t run away. The pain was soon unbearable and I couldn’t plant my foot, which makes sense now because I was running for five minutes on a broken leg.
I was devastated but the family aspect resumed. The girls lifted me up and before long I didn’t feel sorry for myself, it was about finishing the job.
We managed to achieve the victory thanks to Simone, but Kenny always demands better standards.
When we just beat Ukraine, which is 25 places above us, away from home in the biggest week of our lives and we weren’t happy, I think that says a lot about us in as a team.
Being so close to making even more history, we quickly realized how much we wanted it – as individuals, as a team and as a collective.
On the flight back from Ukraine we were positive but our attention immediately turned to Seaview. It was our home and we knew we could finish the job.
We tried to treat it like any other game, even though we knew it wasn’t. But we were confident in our ability, which kept us grounded and not blown away by the big picture.
Back at the hotel, I walked around a few of the younger ones and just asked them if they were ready. I knew I wasn’t playing so I was a lot more relaxed and was able to cope for the other girls.
We stick to our routines. We went for a nice little walk, took naps and downtime. We came together and we built ourselves.
I told them to take advantage of the moment because it could have disappeared in a flash. If you looked back and didn’t like being there, you would have regretted it.
We knew we would leave absolutely everything on the pitch, but there was more nerves in the second leg because we had shocked everyone to take the lead.
You could see at night, from every person sitting in the stands or on the field, how badly we wanted it.
I did what I could from the stands. I’m a vocalist on the pitch so I wanted to replicate this to help the girls settle down.
Things were going well, and when Marissa Callaghan scored the opener it was a state of euphoria.
Marissa is our captain and our leader, it’s hard to describe how much she means to our group, and she deserves all the praise she receives.
Then when Nadene Caldwell scored the second it was all blurry. We are a team and we celebrate together. I wanted to jump on the girls in the stands and waved my crutches all over the place.
Nadene always gives absolutely everything to the team. When she arrived she was like a little girl at Christmas and she helped us get the gift we had all dreamed of.
A childhood dream
There were full time tears and I honestly think I will cry for weeks.
I’m so proud of everyone involved, and I cried for every little girl who watched this game last night, who will now want to aspire to be like us.
I have worked hard my whole career to pave the way for the younger ones. We have laid the groundwork and set the bar so high, and I hope it gets better and better.
I need to pinch myself, it hasn’t really gone down to the fact that we’re going to the Euros. I’ve sacrificed my whole life for this and we’re going to enjoy every last second because we worked so hard to make it happen.
It sounds like a dream. I was telling Simone that we would be in the Panini Stickers and that it was a big “wow” moment for me. I grew up as a kid collecting my favorite players, and now everyone in Northern Ireland has a chance to get the book and place us in it.
After Tuesday’s performance, I want Sarah McFadden to be my first sticker, and it should be a brilliant one. The return leg was the best performance I have seen her do in a Northern Ireland shirt. I could even get it signed for me.
We have never felt such a feeling in our entire life. I hope that in these difficult times we have inspired the whole country because the support we have received has been enormous for us.
It still feels like a dream, I’m going to have to pinch myself every morning to make sure it’s real and I hope that soon settles into the fact that we made the story.
Furness was talking to BBC Sport’s Andy Gray