Kenny Shiels has admitted Northern Ireland’s presence at Euro 2022 this summer has probably come too soon.
Shiels’ side booked their ticket for the tournament in England, which gets under way next month, with a play-off victory over Ukraine to seal their first ever qualification for a major event, but he is under no illusions as to the task they face.
Northern Ireland have been drawn in a group with the hosts, Austria and Norway, three sides their manager believes will have a say in the latter stages of the competition.
He said: “We’ve probably reached these finals too soon in terms of being ready, but we’ll see because I hope the girls can contradict that and go and get a result against Norway and get a result against Austria as well.”
Shiels’ side, who are ranked 47 by Fifa, take on 19th-placed Belgium in a friendly in Antwerp on Thursday evening in their only warm-up game – he had hoped to arrange three – having seen the Belgians lose 3-0 to England at Molineux last week.
Asked what he had learned from that encounter, Shiels said: “We learned that they’re better than us. But they’re good yardsticks.
“You can see how good England are, the best team in the world, best players in the world, so you would expect them to win it.
“I think everybody expects England to win the Euros and probably you’re looking at Norway as being potential finalists, so I would think if you were to ask people in the women’s game, ‘Can you predict the final?’, two of them will probably come from our group.
“But we don’t look at that. I’m not versed to talk about who’s going to win it, I just want to do as well for my country as I can so that the players get some experience, some happiness, everything.
“We’ve been deprived of happy things in our lives this last two years – you don’t need me to explain what they are with the pandemic and all that stuff and the fuel rise and the cost of living.
“I just want people to be happy and I’m in a position to try to influence that.”
Shiels will name his squad for the finals on Monday, by which time he will have to have made a decision on his lingering fitness doubts, including over skipper Marissa Callaghan.
He met up with his players having found himself at the centre of controversy the last time they were together.
His assertion after April’s 5-0 World Cup qualifying defeat by England in Belfast that women’s teams tend to concede goals in clusters because the players are “more emotional than men” was roundly condemned, although he swiftly received the backing of his players.
Shields, who later apologised, insisted his comments were misinterpreted.
He said: “Sometimes people in your profession can misinterpret intentionally, and that’s exactly what happened.
“But I’m not going back there. We’re looking to see how well we can do in the Euros.”