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Rachel Furness is unequivocal. “If, 10 years ago, you’d told me Windsor Park would sell out for a women’s international, I’d have laughed,” says Northern Ireland’s midfield playmaker. “I’d have said you were joking but qualifying for the Euros has worked wonders.”
So much so that a record crowd of 15,348 gathered in Belfast in April to see Kenny Shiels’s side lose 5-0 to England in a World Cup qualifier. Undeterred by a somewhat chastening second half, locals offered Furness and her teammates a resounding ovation as, after the final whistle, Ben E King’s classic Stand by Me boomed out of Windsor Park’s sound system.
No one turned on a team who, against all odds, had already qualified for their first major tournament and now await a Euro 2022 group stage reunion with England in Southampton. Although Northern Ireland are tipped for swift elimination, the legacy of their involvement seems set to be transformational.
“We’ve waited a long time for this tournament,” says Furness. “But, since qualifying, the infrastructure off the pitch has improved massively, interest in women’s football is increasing and the numbers playing have risen. The uplift’s been tremendous. Qualifying’s really raised the bar.”
With most of the squad part-timers Furness, a professional with newly promoted WSL side Liverpool, reports that “it helps massively” that most of Shiels’s players have taken seven-month sabbaticals from day jobs to train full-time.
“We’re under no illusions, we’ve got a gap to bridge,” she says. “But we’ve learnt a lot in recent months. There’s been a massive improvement in fitness levels and technical standards.”
Shiels, meanwhile, has learnt who his friends are. Following that 5-0 defeat against England Northern Ireland’s coach ill-advisedly suggested female footballers were “more emotional” than their male counterparts and, despite the 66-year-old swiftly apologising, a media furore erupted.
“Kenny’s comments were blown out of all proportion, we’re all fully behind him,” says Furness. “We can all make mistakes with wording but without Kenny I wouldn’t be sitting here, talking to you and preparing for my first major tournament.”
Indeed since his appointment in 2019 Northern Ireland have improved almost beyond recognition. “Kenny’s changed the women’s game here,” she continues. “We’ve had a lot of tough times in the past but he’s really raised standards and brought us very much together. The difference in this team from 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 once played at Sunderland. “It’s always nice to catch up with them,” she says. “The north-east’s an often forgotten part of England where people have to fight for everything; it’s no coincidence it’s produced so many top, really high-quality players.
“It’s disappointing Euro 2022 games aren’t being staged in Newcastle and Sunderland; I do think the organisers have missed a trick.”
Despite being north-east born and bred, and possessing the accent to prove it, Furness feels “100%” Northern Irish and harbours a powerful sense of connection to Belfast, her mother’s birthplace. “My mum’s very proud,” says the brightest star in Shiels’ firmament.
Her family appreciate how hard she worked to not only become Northern Ireland’s record goalscorer with 38 in 84 appearances at the time of writing, but to be playing at all following two major knee operations.
Things started going wrong at 16. “The cartilage began crumbling and my knee kept exploding,” Furness recalls. “My surgeon wasn’t a sports specialist and he said I should stop playing football as, if I continued, I’d need a knee replacement by the time I was 30.
“For a while I stopped. It was very tough, both my mental and physical health suffered and I became really unfit. Eventually, though, I started going to the gym and playing again to try and get healthy but my knee kept exploding.”
Assorted physiotherapy regimes later it improved to the point where she joined Newcastle. “At first I kept breaking down but I finally got back to a high level,” says a forward turned midfielder who subsequently played for Grindavik in Iceland before rejoining Sunderland ahead of stints with Reading and Tottenham. “But then my other knee broke down.”
Furness’s new specialist fixed the problem before inquiring how long she wanted her career to continue. “I said maybe until I’m 30 or 31 and he thought that was realistic,” she says. “I’m 34 now so I really do play every game knowing it might be my last.”