|Venue: St. George’s Park, England Date: Tuesday, 23 February Kick-off: 12:30 GMT|
|Coverage: Watch live on the BBC Sport website and on BBC iPlayer|
A superb footballer, a natural leader and a huge believer in youth. For many, Marissa Callaghan embodies everything about women’s football in Northern Ireland.
The 35-year-old may not have made her senior international debut until 2010, but a decade on Callaghan has created history with her country – and is gunning for even more.
A first-ever Euro 2022 play-off awaits Northern Ireland at the beginning of April and the squad – a blend of experienced players who have seen it all, exciting talents plying their trade in England or Scotland and up-and-coming Irish League youngsters – will take on England in their sole friendly before the play-off.
With manager Kenny Shiels missing several key players, 16-year-old defender Ella Haughey and goalkeeper Maddy Harvey-Clifford have been drafted into an already youthful NI squad.
“I’m really proud to see the younger ones come through. It comes with the territory when you are one of the experienced players,” said Callaghan.
“Through my journey, I didn’t really have many older ones to look up to so I like to make sure that I am there for them. I want them to believe in themselves and realise how good they are.
“Sometimes you need somebody to tell you to be confident in yourself and don’t worry about anything. Just enjoy the journey because it is a brilliant one to be on.”
Since his appointment for the European qualifying campaign, Shiels has been a big believer in the talent in the Irish League and has put his faith in young players.
Of the 29 players used by Shiels in Euro 2022 qualifying, 20 of them played in the Irish League throughout his 18-month tenure.
“They are so lucky to be starting out where they are now, with the opportunities they are going to get, it is a brilliant time to be involved in women’s football,” said Callaghan.
“To be a 16 or 17-year-old and get to St. George’s Park and play against England – there is not better team to play against for your first experience in a senior squad.
“They are at the start of their journey and we just want them to be the best that they can be.
“It means so much for us to be part of the squad with them. It is an amazing time to be part of it and hopefully we can go and make even more history in April.”
McCarron will be a star
When asked about Birmingham City’s Chloe McCarron in the pre-match press conference, Callaghan was full of praise for her midfield partner.
McCarron, who starred for Linfield before earning a move to England in September, has become one of the first names on Shiels’ team-sheet. The 23-year-old rewarded that faith by scoring a superb first international goal against the Faroe Islands in December.
“Chloe is our playmaker, she is a fantastic player and a really good girl to have around. She has a big future,” said Callaghan.
“Before the style maybe didn’t suit the type of player she was. She only had a few caps when Kenny came in but because of his playing style she has really improved and it is getting the best out of her.
“She has a great attitude. She is waiting patiently for her game time at Birmingham and I know once she starts getting more matches and more international games then she is going to be a star.”
Youngsters’ attitude ‘immense’
Shiels has been impressed with Crusaders Strikers’ Harvey-Clifford and Lisburn Rangers left-back Haughey since their introduction to the senior set-up.
“Maddy was playing against Simone Magill and she took the ball around her. As a goalkeeper I thought that was brave,” said the 64-year-old.
“Ella has been bombing on. Her attitude, the attention to her own detail and the professionalism for someone so young is immense. She is great.”
While the likes of Callaghan, Magill and Julie Nelson are role models for the younger players, Shiels says the newest players in the squad can be an inspiration to the next generation.
“We want to give them as much exposure as possible. Not only for adults, but for all the young girls,” he said.
“We want to do it for them as well. I want them to say, ‘I want to be that player one day’.
“If it is a pretty picture at the top it will help the younger ones in primary school to aspire to be there. It is important that we send out that message to young girls.”