Euro 2022: 'Northern Ireland underdogs but up for the challenge' - Callaghan ready for Norway test

By Andy GrayBBC Sport NI at St Mary's
Northern Ireland trained at St Mary's on the eve of their maiden match at a major tournament
Northern Ireland trained at St Mary's on the eve of their maiden match at a major tournament

"Who?" That was the response when Marissa Callaghan was asked about the return of fearsome Norway forward Ada Hegerberg.

It was, of course, tongue in cheek and followed by a big smile, which sums up the relaxed mood that has surrounded Northern Ireland since they landed in Southampton on Monday.

NI's captain Callaghan, who said she was "fit and ready to go" following a toe injury which put her participation in the opening match in doubt, said she was "calm inside" on the eve of Northern Ireland's maiden major tournament.

"Surprisingly the camp is really calm. It's a massive occasion, we know that, but we are trying to take it all in," she said.

"The camp is in really good form. We are excited and ready to get into it."

There is no doubt that Northern Ireland will fully embrace the occasion. For many of this squad this is the cumulation of a life's work and dedication to reaching the pinnacle of their careers.

As the tournament's ultimate underdogs, ranked 47th in the world and part-time until January, Northern Ireland have little pressure on their shoulders but Callaghan says her side will show no fear.

"They are one of the top teams in the world - we know that they are giants of European football," she added.

"We are up for the challenge. We are Northern Ireland, we are underdogs. We have prepared immensely.

"It is about performances, it is about believing in ourselves and the big thing we have spoken about is improving.

"We want to improve individually and we want to improve as a squad. We have a lot of experienced players and a lot of younger players and the aim for us is to get better game by game."

Marissa Callaghan and Nadene Caldwell
Marissa Callaghan trained at St Mary's after a recent scare about a toe injury

All three of Northern Ireland's Group A matches are at St Mary's, home of Premier League club Southampton, and Callaghan said recent experiences of playing England at Wembley and a sold-out Windsor Park in Belfast will help the team settle on the biggest occasion of their careers.

"I was saying coming in it felt like Wembley. We have experienced that and we have experienced the National Stadium with so many fans, that will just keep us calm," she said.

"We will relish it. I can't wait to hear the Green and White Army and we will just take it all in.

"This is the pinnacle and what we have all worked so hard for. It is something that was almost beyond our wildest dreams."

'Fear of failure is failure'

Norway have been boosted by the return of Hegerberg, who returned to the international fold after five years away in protest about perceived conditions about the women's game in Norway.

With the Lyon forward, Barcelona Caroline Graham Hansen, the Norwegians - who are considered dark horses for the tournament - have the firepower to take on any team in the world but Shiels is adamant his side will be able to cope with their attacking threat.

"That statistic tell you how good they are but we can't go too deep into that because it would frighten you," he said.

"We start the match at 0-0 and we want to get closer to the upper tier - international teams like Norway, like England, like Austria.

"We play as we are. That success has got us here. I always say to the girls that fear of failure is failure, and that is a template we work off."

Caroline Graham Hansen and the returning Ada Hegerberg will provide a stern attacking threat for Norway
Caroline Graham Hansen and the returning Ada Hegerberg will provide a stern attacking threat for Norway

Ultimately, Shiels said a successful tournament would be seeing improvement in each game against opposition who, on paper at least, will be heavy favourites to pick up three points.

"It is a big day for everybody, not just the players but the whole country," Shiels said as Northern Ireland prepared to make history.

"They really want to perform well, there is no pressure on them to go and win. It's not expected by most people, our beliefs are slightly different, and we have to make sure we don't look back and go, 'if only I had'.

"You want some motivation but you don't have to get the girls drummed up and ready to go. They are so motivated."

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