Euro 2022 play-off: Laura Rafferty thrilled to have chance to help Northern Ireland create history

Venue: Seaview, Belfast Date: Tuesday, 13 April Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC2 Northern Ireland, BBC iPlayer, BBC Sport NI website and Red Button.

Laura Rafferty says she “cried my eyes out” when she was recalled to the Northern Ireland squad for the Euro 2022 play-off against Ukraine after an injury-hit three years.

Rafferty won her 28th cap in Friday’s 2-1 win in Ukraine which has put her country on the cusp of an historic first appearance at a women’s finals.

“To see the transition is incredible. It’s amazing to be around,” she says.

“But just getting selected isn’t enough. We have a job to finish off.”

That task will be at Seaview on Tuesday evening and while Covid-19 regulations means there will be no fans present, the game is live on BBC Two Northern Ireland as well as iPlayer and website platforms.

The 24-year-old’s injury-plagued three seasons included rupturing a knee ligament in 2019.

Prior to her second-half introduction in Kovalivka, Rafferty’s last Northern Ireland appearance was in a World Cup qualifier against the Republic of Ireland in August 2018.

Kenny Shiels gets in a spot of heading during a recent Northern Ireland training session
The Northern Ireland squad have made huge strides since Kenny Shiels’ arrival as team manager

Shiels kept in touch during Rafferty’s injured spell

Speaking on Sunday, Rafferty recalled that she was “on gas and air” in hospital when Northern Ireland played their first qualifier of the then Euro 2021 campaign, which subsequently became Euro 2022 because of Covid-19.

As she regained fitness helped by her loan move from Brighton to Bristol City, the former Chelsea player admits she was “nervous” that a Northern Ireland recall might not come given remarkable strides made by the squad under Kenny Shiels.

However, the county Londonderry man kept in regular touch and with so many injuries in the squad coming into the play-off, the manager had no hesitation in recalling the defender.

“I thinks Kenny has liked what he’s seen in me since I moved to Bristol City.

“[Bristol City manager] Matt Beard has helped me a lot as well in getting my confidence back as a ball-playing defender.

“I will never take anything for granted again. It feels like winning the lottery getting back into the squad. But that’s still not enough for me.

“We want to put Northern Ireland [women’s] football on the map.

“It’s what we’ve dreamed about for years. We want to let the next generation see dreams come true.”

Rachel Furness challenges for the ball in Ukraine before her enforced departure because of injury
Rachel Furness netted her 31st international goal in Friday’s first leg but was forced off with an injury

Furness fighting fitness battle for second leg

Since Friday’s surprise first leg win in Ukraine, everyone connected with the Northern Ireland squad has been on message that the job is far from done and Rafferty is no different.

“It’s going to be a completely different game. We are being very versatile so we can adapt to what the game might bring.

“We’re still the underdogs in this tie. The scoreline gives us the upper hand but it’s how we deal with that.

“I don’t think you can take away that Ukraine are 24 places above us in the rankings.

“But we’re Northern Ireland and determined not to let anyone turn us over in our own back yard.

“We are going out to win at home. Not hold on.”

To that end, Rafferty believes an early Northern Ireland breakthrough could deflate the visitors on Tuesday.

“Going for an early goal to put the game beyond Ukraine could be a good game plan. We say how downbeat Ukraine got [on Friday] but we know they’re going to come out for revenge.”

Rafferty says the squad remain optimistic that Liverpool’s Rachel Furness will recover from the knock that forced her departure in the first half on Friday night.

“She’s in a good head space but it will be another 24 hours until we know if she can play.”

BBC News