England v Northern Ireland: Wembley hosts dress rehearsal ahead of bigger euros


England’s Ellen White (left) scored in her side’s last game at Wembley, while Rachel Furness (right) scored in the play-off win over Ukraine which sealed Ireland’s qualification North for Euro 2022.

When England and Northern Ireland face off in a World Cup qualifier at Wembley on Saturday, it will be a big opportunity for both sides – but for very different reasons.

For the Lionesses it’s a return to the biggest stage in English football – their first time at Wembley since a record crowd witnessed their loss to Germany in 2019.

It’s also the perfect opportunity to regain lost momentum, rally supporters and build excitement for a European Championship at home this summer.

For Northern Ireland, this is one of the biggest tests they will face ahead of their first major women’s tournament at Euro 2022.

Just a month after performing in front of over 4,000 fans at Windsor Park, can they upset the odds at Wembley in a dress rehearsal of what’s to come this summer?

“We always ask for more”

Leah Williamson playing at Wembley
Leah Williamson will wear the captain’s armband at Wembley in the absence of Manchester City’s Steph Houghton

Only around 30,000 fans are expected on Saturday – considerably fewer than the 77,768 who saw loss to Germany in 2019 – but here it is still England’s best chance to get fans excited for Euro 2022.

Women’s football has always had to capitalize when offered opportunities on the main stage and England captain Leah Williamson said: “The nature of women’s football means we are always looking for more and I don’t think it will stop never.

“The best thing for us to do is have a good game and I hope the crowd shows up and brings in the energy they had last time around.”

Playing at Wembley is becoming “more normal,” Williamson says.

But can it be used – again – as an opportunity to generate interest, develop deeper bonds with home fans and put on a show before the Euro?

England coach Sarina Wiegman achieved this with the Netherlands when they captured the hearts of the nation while winning Euro 2017 at home.

And the importance of Saturday’s game at Wembley has not escaped him.

“Most of the time I’m pretty calm but I’m very excited,” Wiegman said.

“I hope we can show [great football] in this very special stage and have fun. We want to give the fans a good experience. “

Williamson added: “Maybe it’s time to connect at this level and there is no better opportunity than with a Euro at home and we can kick it off with the game at Wembley.

“Women’s football has reached that level where we can get people to see it. For the country as a whole, I don’t know why we wouldn’t want to celebrate top sport on the bigger stage?”

Northern Ireland is still learning – Shiels

Northern Ireland celebrates
Northern Ireland beat Latvia 4-0 in their final World Cup qualifying game

For Northern Ireland, the approach couldn’t be more different than their opponents. Despite the wait that accompanies their historic qualification for Euro 2022, the traditional outsider tag firmly returns to the women in green on Saturday.

Few people expect Kenny Shiels’ side to get anything out of the game, but Northern Ireland head to Wembley believing they can win.

“It’s 11 verses 11 on the pitch, we have a chance to win, they have a chance to win – so this is how we’re going to approach it,” said Shiels, 65.

“I’m always a little nervous before games because I don’t control the contribution of the players on the pitch,

“However, I have confidence in the players and I think they will look very good in this game.”

When you look at the rankings – England is eighth in the world and 40 places above NI – you might be excused for thinking that belief is wrong.

However, Northern Ireland are on a competitive eight-game winning streak. Seven of their squad recently won the national treble with Glentoran and although they are lesser known players they have developed a winning mentality and that will translate on the international stage.

Several hundred NI fans are expected at Wembley, and one only needs to look at the power of the Green and White Army for the men’s team at Euro 2016 to realize that the bond between the team and the fans is crucial.

The only thing this team has yet to achieve is a victory over one of the best nations. If that doesn’t happen on Saturday against England, Shiels will ask his players to learn from the experience.

“I checked the odds and we were 50-1 at some bookies,” he said.

“It’s a football game. We have to take the fantastic ease, the opportunity and everything that goes with it, we have to take that out of our mental approach.

“When we go into important games like this, all of our focus is on winning. However, it’s important that we learn.”

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