Reaching Euro 2022 is a game-changer for Northern Ireland and Rachel Furness | Women’s Euro 2022

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Rachel Furness is unequivocal. “If 10 years ago you had told me Windsor Park would be full for a women’s international, I would have laughed,” said the Northern Ireland playmaker. “I would have said you were joking, but qualifying for the Euros has done wonders.”

So much so that a record crowd of 15,348 gathered in Belfast in April to watch Kenny Shiels’ side lose 5-0 to England in a World Cup qualifier. Undeterred by a somewhat grueling second half, the locals gave Furness and her teammates a resounding ovation as after the final whistle Ben E King’s classic Stand by Me blasted onto the Windsor Park sound system.

No one has turned against a side who, against all odds, had already qualified for their first major tournament and are now awaiting a Euro 2022 group stage meeting with England in Southampton. Although Northern Ireland are set for a quick elimination, the legacy of their involvement appears to be transformative.

“We’ve waited a long time for this tournament,” Furness said. “But since qualifying the infrastructure off the pitch has improved significantly, interest in women’s football is growing and the number of players has increased. The uprising was great. Qualifying really raised the bar.

Along with most of the team’s part-timers, Furness, a professional with newly promoted WSL side Liverpool, reports that “it helps enormously” that most Shiels players have been on seven-week sabbaticals. months to train full time.

“We are under no illusions, we have a gap to fill,” she says. “But we have learned a lot over the past few months. There has been a massive improvement in fitness levels and technical standards.

Shiels, meanwhile, learned who his friends are. Following that 5-0 loss to England, the Northern Ireland manager incorrectly suggested the female footballers were “more emotional” than their male counterparts and, despite the 66-year-old’s quick apology, a media furor erupted.

“Kenny’s comments were overblown, we’re all behind him,” Furness said. “We can all make wording errors, but without Kenny, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you and preparing for my first major tournament.”

Northern Ireland manager Kenny Shiels (far left) speaks to players like Rachel Furness during April’s loss to England. Photography: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile/Getty Images

Indeed, since his appointment in 2019, Northern Ireland have improved almost beyond recognition. “Kenny changed the women’s game here,” she continues. “We’ve had a lot of tough times in the past, but he’s really raised the standards and brought us a lot closer. The difference in this team between before Kenny took over and now is like night and day.

Furness remains friendly with several England players including Lucy Bronze, Jill Scott and Demi Stokes with whom she previously played at Sunderland. “It’s always nice to catch up with them,” she says. “The North East is an often forgotten part of England where people have to fight for everything; it is no coincidence that he has produced so many top quality players.

“It’s disappointing that Euro 2022 matches aren’t being staged in Newcastle and Sunderland; I think the organizers missed a trick.

Although she was born and raised in the North East and has the accent to prove it, Furness feels ‘100%’ Northern Irish and has a strong sense of connection to Belfast, the birthplace of his mother. “My mother is very proud,” says the brightest star in the firmament of Shiels.

Her family appreciate how hard she has worked to not only become Northern Ireland’s top scorer with 38 goals in 84 appearances at the time of writing, but to play at all after two major knee surgeries.

Things started to go wrong when I was 16. “The cartilage started to crumble and my knee kept exploding,” Furness recalled. “My surgeon was not a sports specialist and he told me that I had to stop playing football because if I continued I would need knee replacement surgery at the age of 30.

“For a while I quit. It was very hard, my mental and physical health suffered and I became really unfit. Eventually, however, I started going to the gym and playing again to try to regain my health, but my knee kept exploding.

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Various physiotherapy regimens later, she improved to the point where she joined Newcastle. “At first I kept falling apart but eventually I came back to a high level,” says a striker-turned-midfielder who later played for Grindavik in Iceland before moving to Sunderland before spells at Reading and Tottenham. “But then my other knee broke down.”

The new Furness specialist resolved the matter before asking her how long she wanted her career to continue. “I said maybe until 30 or 31 and he thought that was realistic,” she says. “I’m 34 now, so I really play every game knowing it could be my last.”

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