|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|
On the crest of a wave after making history, Northern Ireland travel to St. George’s Park to take on England on Tuesday in their sole friendly before April’s Euro 2022 qualifier.
However if you roll back the clock by 14 years, women’s football in Northern Ireland was an entirely different landscape to what it is now.
Kelly Bailie captained Northern Ireland when the sides last met in Euro 2009 qualifying. The game in Gillingham in May 2007 saw Hope Powell’s team run out 4-0 victors but a tight return fixture the following March at Mourneview Park saw a 2-0 scoreline.
While the England side was littered with star names such as Kelly Smith, Alex Scott and Karen Carney, not one player from Alfie Wylie’s squad was plying their trade outside Northern Ireland.
“We had no fear of playing England. We had talented players but we knew there was a gap between us and where English football was at the time,” said Bailie.
“We wanted to step up to the challenge and we knew it was a chance to measure ourselves against some of the best.”
Bailie, who is still playing for Glentoran at the age of 40, says her stand-out memory from the two fixtures was what it meant for Northern Ireland.
The women’s senior national team had only reformed in 2004 after a four-year break and the England fixtures were a mark of progress.
“There was the reality that it was taking off and this was an opportunity to start building something,” she added.
Bailie said captaining Northern Ireland against England “was one of the proudest moments” of her distinguished career, which has saw her win 30 trophies and make over 700 appearances in her 23 years with Glentoran.
“Kelly Smith was the payer who stood out to me. Some of the things she was able to do were a world above,” she added.
“Playing against her made you realise how good she was. You can watch players on TV but you don’t realise just how good someone is until you are on the pitch with them.
“I thought we gave a good account of ourselves given it was a relatively new to our group of players.”
Current veterans star
While many of the players from Bailie’s era have moved on, several key players remain at the core of Kenny Shiels’ current side. Ashley Hutton, Julie Nelson – both now centurions – Demi Vance and Sarah McFadden featured in the England matches.
Rachel Furness, Marissa Callaghan and Nadene Caldwell would also break into the senior set-up shortly after.
“They have taken that ambition and commitment through to the current squad and you can see that coming to fruition over the past couple of years,” added Bailie.
“The one thing we were always good at was commitment and fighting for everything. They have always been there from the start and they have instilled belief in the players coming through.
“They have lived through where we have come from as an international side to where it is now and that will stand well for the younger ones coming through because they will inherit that.
“With the coaching and the set-up that they have, things have come a long way. The bridge is a lot smaller than what it once was and they are in a terrific position at the minute.”
Bailie praises progress under Shiels
While Bailie has now hung up her international boots, several of her Glentoran team-mates are involved in the international set-up and defender Bailie says she can see the progress in Shiels’ squad.
“A lot of the girls coming back from international camps are really encouraged and you can tell they want to learn,” she said.
“They want the chance to play, they are working hard for it and they are committed. They are enjoying themselves and enjoying their football under Kenny.”
Bailie says the experiences of the players who have invested in Northern Ireland’s journey will ensure a positive mindset for the England friendly.
“Kenny will know that there is a desire and a commitment in his squad. They will fight to the last second of every match for whatever is on the line.
“The experienced players will make sure that the mentality is right. They will know how close they are to doing something special and England could be a building block for that. If you get the mentality right for Tuesday then it will set them up well for the April qualifiers.”
— to www.bbc.co.uk