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England v Northern Ireland: Wembley stage a dress rehearsal before biggest Euros

Ellen White, Wembley Stadium and Rachel Furness
England’s Ellen White (left) scored in her side’s last game at Wembley, while Rachel Furness (right) scored in the two-legged play-off victory over Ukraine which sealed Northern Ireland’s qualification for Euro 2022

When England and Northern Ireland face each other in a World Cup qualifier at Wembley on Saturday it will be a big occasion for both teams – but for very different reasons.

For the Lionesses, it is a return to the biggest stage in English football – their first time at Wembley since a record-breaking crowd watched their defeat to Germany in 2019.

It is also the perfect chance to regain lost momentum, rally supporters and build excitement for a home European Championship in the summer.

For Northern Ireland, it is one of the biggest tests they will face before their first major women’s tournament at Euro 2022.

Just a month after playing in front of more than 4,000 fans at Windsor Park, can they upset the odds at Wembley in a dress rehearsal for what is to come in the summer?

‘We’re always pushing for more’

Leah Williamson playing at Wembley
Leah Williamson will wear the captain’s armband at Wembley in the absence of Manchester City’s Steph Houghton

Only around 30,000 fans are expected on Saturday – considerably less than the 77,768 who saw the defeat by Germany in 2019 – but there this is still England’s best chance to excite supporters for Euro 2022.

Women’s football has always had to capitalise when given opportunities on the main stage and England captain Leah Williamson says: “The nature of the women’s game means we’re always pushing for more and I don’t think that will ever stop.

“The best thing for us to do is have a good game and hopefully the crowd turns up and brings the energy they did last time.”

Playing at Wembley is becoming “more normal” says Williamson.

But can it be used – once again – as an opportunity to drive interest, develop deeper connections with home fans and put on a show before the Euros?

England manager Sarina Wiegman achieved this with the Netherlands when they captured the hearts of the nation while winning the 2017 Euros on home soil.

And the significance of Saturday’s game at Wembley has not passed her by.

“Most of the time I’m pretty calm but I am very excited,” said Wiegman.

“Hopefully we can show [great football] in that very special stadium and enjoy ourselves. We want to give the fans a good experience.”

Williamson added: “Maybe it’s time to connect on that level and there’s no better opportunity than with a home Euros and we can kick it off with the game at Wembley.

“The women’s game has got to that level where we can bring the people in to see it. For the country as a whole I don’t know why we wouldn’t want to celebrate high-performance sport on the biggest stage?”

Northern Ireland are always learning – Shiels

Northern Ireland celebrate
Northern Ireland beat Latvia 4-0 in their last World Cup qualifier

For Northern Ireland the approach could not be more different than their opponents. Despite the expectation that comes with their historic qualification for Euro 2022, the traditional underdog tag is firmly back on the women in green on Saturday.

Few expect Kenny Shiels’ side to get anything from the game, but Northern Ireland are heading to Wembley believing they can win.

“It’s 11 verses 11 on the pitch, we have a chance of winning, they have a chance of winning – so that is how we will approach it,” said Shiels, 65.

“I’m always a little bit nervous before games as it is outside my control to what the players contribute on the pitch,

“However I have trust in the players and I believe they will give a really good account of themselves in this game.”

When you look at the rankings – England are eighth in the world and 40 places above NI – you could be excused for thinking that belief is misguided.

However Northern Ireland are on an eight-game competitive winning run. Seven of their squad recently won the domestic treble with Glentoran and, although they are lesser-known players, they have developed a winning mentality and that will translate onto the international stage.

Several hundred NI fans are expected to be at Wembley, and you just look at the power of the Green and White Army for the men’s team at Euro 2016 to realise that the bond between the team and fans is crucial.

The only thing this team has yet to achieve is a victory over one of the top nations. If that does not happen on Saturday against England, Shiels will ask his players learn from that experience.

“I checked the odds and we were 50-1 in some bookmakers,” he said.

“It’s a game of football. We have to take the fantastic facility, the occasion and all that goes with that, we have to remove that from our mental approach.

“When we go into important games like this one, all of our emphasis is on winning. However it is important that we learn.”

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