Euro 2022: 'Please give us games, we really need them' - Shiels' call to NI Executive

Jill Scott and Marissa Callaghan
Northern Ireland lost 6-0 to England in their sole friendly before the Euro 2022 play-off

Kenny Shiels has pleaded with the Northern Ireland Executive to let his side play matches before April's Euro 2022 play-off with Ukraine.

A 6-0 defeat by England in February is NI's sole friendly between December's qualifiers and the historic play-offs.

NI have previously played under-17 teams to build conditioning but only the men's and women's Irish Premiership are allowed under current restrictions.

"Please give us those games, we really need them," said Shiels.

Northern Ireland will travel to Ukraine in the first leg before hosting the reverse fixture between 7-13 April in their bid to reach a first-ever major tournament.

The Women's Premiership in Northern Ireland ended in December and the new season is not set to begin until after the play-offs take place. The vast majority of Shiels' squad belong in the domestic league and haven't played competitive football since the win over the Faroe Islands at the beginning of December.

Prior to the four qualifiers with Belarus and the Faroe Islands in the autumn, Shiels' side played friendlies against Irish League youth teams - including boys sides from Glentoran, Cliftonville, Coleraine and Moyola Park.

However under the current restrictions these friendlies would not be allowed to take place and, after a heavy defeat by England, Shiels believes his team need support from the government at Stormont if they are to make more history.

In a statement the Irish FA said it is "in constant dialogue with the NI Executive on all footballing matters" but it is understood that the association has not yet asked Stormont about considering granting an exception to the women's senior team.

"We were brave to take the England game on because our girls haven't played for months. We needed three games and two of them were wiped out. That was difficult for us," said Shiels.

"The same thing will happen as they did against England unless we get three of four practice matches - which we aren't allowed to do at the moment.

"We would love to have friendly games against boys teams, for example Glentoran, Coleraine or Linfield under-17s like we did in the summer, but it's not allowed.

"I don't want it to be like lambs to the slaughter like it was against England, I want there to be match fitness and for us to prepare professionally.

"I would plead with the Northern Ireland Executive, please alleviate the stress on these young girls because we still cannot have matches."

Play-off 'a changing point'

Shiels believes Ukraine "are a tough test" and added that preparation was paramount.

"This is going to be a changing point for the women's game in Northern Ireland. That's how important it is," added the 64-year-old.

"We are not just carrying this for our nation and our players, but the younger generation coming through.

"We have had a lot of obstacles along the way but this is the biggest one. What we learned from the England game was you cannot play against the best players in the world if you are a small country without maximum conditioning.

"If we had of been conditioned we would have got so much more from it. We don't want the same thing to happen again. Give us that pathway and don't nullify it, please. That's all I ask."

Sarah McFadden, Lauren Wade, Ashley Hutton and Marissa Callaghan
Northern Ireland made history by beating the Faroe Islands in December

Shiels cited the Ireland rugby team in the Six Nations and Ireland hockey team, who recently played matches in Spain and will host Great Britain later in March, and asked for "parity" between the sports.

"We played Cliftonville and it was magnificent preparation before going to Belarus. It helped us so much because we were stronger and quicker, and the England game can do that for us now. That gave us so much preparation for the qualifiers. Now that has been taken away.

"We want the Executive to recognise that we are working hard, this means so much to our nation and say, 'let's get behind them and alleviate these restrictions'. It would only be small but it would mean so much to us.

"If we haven't got conditioning then that will set us back considerably. You need it to be more adept at the game. That's why it is important that we get playing these games because we are representative of the whole nation."

"If we can get through these games with Ukraine it is massive to what that will bring to all the young nine, 10 or 11-year olds. What a brilliant opportunity for them to dream and say, 'I want to be like that'."