Euro 2022: 'I love coming to work every day' - Inside Northern Ireland's full-time set-up

By Andy GrayBBC Sport NI
Northern Ireland's full-time programme resides at the Newforge facility in Belfast
Northern Ireland's full-time programme resides at the Newforge facility in Belfast

It's no secret that 2022 is a massive year for Northern Irish football as Kenny Shiels' team build towards Euro 2022 - a maiden major tournament for the senior women's side.

Already making history to reach the finals in England this July, NI's underdog status will be larger than ever with Norway, Austria and the host nation to come.

In preparation, 22 domestic-based players have entered a seven-month full-time professional programme at Newforge in Belfast

It seems strange given the magnitude of the team's achievement, but Northern Ireland defied the odds to reach one of the biggest stages in the sport as a team largely made up of part-time players.

While there has always been a handful of professional players, the success of this team largely relies on talent, pure grit and desire rather than fitness and professional conditioning. Now, there is a chance for this to change.

There is a mix of experience, trusted players and youth in the 22-strong panel
There is a mix of experience, trusted players and youth in the 22-strong panel

For some this is not a new experience, but for many this is a first foray into the world of professional sport ahead of the biggest summer of their lives.

"We are very lucky and privileged to have this set up here. It's been very positive so far and I just love coming to work every day," said Glentoran winger Lauren Wade.

"We have breakfast and activation before we are on the pitch at 11:00. You will have your pitch session, then lunch before recovery in the afternoon.

"We are starting to notice the changes. We are able to up the training, people's bodies are recovering quicker.

"It's been really worthwhile. I know we are only five weeks in but we already see the benefits. This is what I want to do, play football every day."

Drawing on past experiences

Chloe McCarron is one of the players who has recent experience of full-time football with her stint at Birmingham City last season.

The 24-year-old midfielder says her time in the Women's Super League helped her adapt to her new surroundings.

"I had a bit of a heads up from Birmingham, so I knew what it was going to be like and what the demands of it would be like," she said.

"I've tried to carry that in here and conduct myself in the same kind of way.

"It's the same but different. We are obviously training for a very different thing with the tournament five months away and not a match every week."

Lauren Wade and Chloe McCarron
Glentoran duo Lauren Wade and Chloe McCarron are regulars under Kenny Shiels

McCarron adds that the extra time with the staff and squad has only enhanced the bond in the already tight-knit group.

"We're lucky to be here. Not all players in Northern Ireland have the opportunity to be here," she added.

"Being in with the girls every single day, you are learning so much about each other on and off the pitch and that can only help.

"You can see with everyone that we are that bit sharper. Being a midfielder you need to get around the pitch otherwise you can't do much, so it has benefitted me massively."

It's like a club pre-season

Northern Ireland are currently in Marbella for a 10-day training camp which will see Shiels' side take on the Faroe Islands, Switzerland and Romania.

Of the 23 players selected for the camp in Spain, 12 are from the 22-domestic players who are in full-time training.

Shiels predicts the camp in Spain will be a turning point and his players can kick on to the next level ahead of April's crucial World Cup qualifiers against Austria and England.

"We will be six weeks in after Spain and I use that target a lot. I think that is when you start to see changes," he added.

"It's not that unpredictable now and we are getting to the stage where the girls understand.

"We'll approach it the same way as we did when we were part-time. It's all about adding that conditioning to how we play."

Kenny Shiels keeps a close eye on his players in training at Newforge
Kenny Shiels keeps a close eye on his players in training at Newforge

Some predicted niggles from the transition period have already come to fruition. Record caps holder Julie Nelson and winger Caragh Hamilton have missed out on the February training camp in Spain after not long recovering from injuries while Louise McDaniel and long-term absentee Ashley Hutton remain on the treatment table.

Manager Shiels is no stranger to full-time football with experience at clubs like Kilmarnock and Derry City. He believes there are similarities between the current programme and club set-ups.

"I've spoken to them a lot about the adaptations and how they will meet hurdles along the way," said the 65-year-old.

"When you start off it is like pre-season for a club team. You have to bare the pitfalls of the first four weeks and are worried about injuries because their bodies have been relaxed for a while.

"We have been through that and it is improving all the time. Hopefully we will reach the next stage after Spain.

"There has been progress. You always want it to be more but we are in a good place with the improvement."

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