Captain Marissa Callaghan insists Northern Ireland are not at Euro 2022 to “make up numbers” as she prepares to lead her country into their first major tournament.
The veteran Cliftonville midfielder has declared herself fit and ready for Thursday evening’s historic clash with Norway in Southampton after making a rapid recovery from a broken bone in her foot.
Northern Ireland are easily the lowest-ranked team in the 16-nation tournament and massive underdogs to progress from a group also containing Austria and hosts England.
Yet, on the eve of the biggest game of her career, Callaghan dismissed suggestions that an early exit is inevitable.
“We go out every game with the belief that we can win it, you have to,” said the 36-year-old. “We’re footballers, we want to strive to be our best.
“You can’t go into any game thinking, ‘this is going to be tough, they’re going to beat us’.
“It’s always been our way from Kenny (Shiels, manager) coming in that every single game we’re preparing to win. That will be the mindset that we go out with tomorrow.
“Obviously we know exactly how hard that challenge is going to be, we know the calibre of player and team we’re up against.
“But we’re here, we’re in the top 16 teams in Europe and we’re here to cause an upset and we’re not just here to make up numbers.”
Callaghan was given a guard of honour by team-mates ahead of training at St Mary’s on Wednesday afternoon.
She, at times, feared injury may deprive her of an emotional, landmark moment before overcoming physical and mental barriers to be in contention.
Having struggled to find opportunities to play football as a child, Callaghan has seen first-hand the rapid growth of the women’s game over recent years.
“I’m so proud, so honoured,” she said. “It’s a dream come true for any little girl to lead their country and captain their country. I still have to pinch myself that it’s my title.
“We’ve been on this incredible journey and this is the pinnacle, this is what we’ve all worked hard for, this is something that was almost beyond our wildest dreams.
“When we were young we had to go and play with the boys or go and play in the street and almost force somewhere to play the game.
“Now, fast-forward, the opportunities are endless and just recently at Windsor (Park) we had almost 16,000 fans there.
“There was nothing going to stop me getting here.”
Northern Ireland are set to be backed by a sizeable travelling contingent for their three Group A fixtures on the south coast.
Manager Shiels, who confirmed he currently has a fully-fit squad available, vowed to continue with the brand of football which secured qualification, rather than adopt a more pragmatic approach against formidable opposition.
“We play as we are,” said the 66-year-old. “That success has got us here.
“I say to the girls all the time, ‘fear of failure is failure’ and we work off the template. We can’t be afraid of other football teams that we play against.
“We need composure, we need to be able to manoeuvre their expressions in how they want to perform and how they want to play, we can’t mess about with that in any shape or form.”
Norway’s talented squad includes the likes of Barcelona forward Caroline Graham Hansen – who hit a hat-trick against Northern Ireland in qualifying – and 2018 Ballon d’Or recipient Ada Hegerberg.
Manager Martin Sjogren is confident of making a strong start to the competition.
“The preparations have been good, I think we’re well-prepared,” said the 45-year-old Swede. “We have had a clear plan and we’ve waited a long time for this championship.
“Northern Ireland’s biggest strength is that they battle for one another 110 per cent but we hope that we can dominate with our attacking play.”
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