‘Incredible journey’: Northern Ireland captain Callaghan upbeat for Euro 2022

‘Incredible journey’: Northern Ireland captain Callaghan upbeat for Euro 2022

Marissa Callaghan has insisted Northern Ireland are not at Euro 2022 to “make up the numbers” as she prepares to lead her country into their first major tournament. The captain has declared herself fit and ready for Thursday evening’s historic clash with Norway in Southampton after making a rapid recovery from a broken bone in her foot.

Northern Ireland are the lowest-ranked team in the 16-nation tournament and underdogs to progress from a group also containing Austria and England. Yet, on the eve of the biggest game of her career, Callaghan dismissed suggestions that an early exit is inevitable.

“We go out for every game with the belief that we can win it, you have to,” said the 36-year-old Cliftonville midfielder. “We’re footballers, we want to strive to be our best. You can’t go into any game thinking, ‘this is going to be tough, they’re going to beat us’.

“It’s always been our way from Kenny [Shiels, manager] coming in that every single game we’re preparing to win. That will be the mindset that we go out with tomorrow. Obviously we know exactly how hard that challenge is going to be, we know the calibre of player and team we’re up against.

“But we’re here, we’re in the top-16 teams in Europe and we’re here to cause an upset, not just to make up numbers.”

Callaghan was given a guard of honour by teammates ahead of training at St Mary’s on Wednesday afternoon. At times she feared injury might deprive her of an emotional, landmark moment before overcoming physical and mental barriers to be in contention.

Having struggled to find opportunities to play football as a child, Callaghan has seen first-hand the rapid growth of the women’s game over recent years. “I’m so proud, so honoured,” she said. “It’s a dream come true for any little girl to lead their country and captain their country. I still have to pinch myself that it’s my title.

“We’ve been on this incredible journey and this is the pinnacle. This is what we’ve all worked hard for, this is something that was almost beyond our wildest dreams. When we were young we had to go and play with the boys or go and play in the street and almost force somewhere to play the game.

“Now, fast-forward, the opportunities are endless and just recently at Windsor Park we had almost 16,000 fans there. There was nothing going to stop me getting here.”