Kenny Shiels motivator not magician behind Northern Ireland’s EURO 2022 history

Kenny Shiels’ role as mastermind of an improbable journey to sharing the big stage for the first time is one sprinkled with magic but conjured by an alchemy born out of application, inspiration, perspiration and dedication.

The 66-year-old manager may stand as the guiding hand shaping Northern Ireland women’s football to unprecedented heights at international level but it is in the role of motivator not magician.

Last February, Northern Ireland players stood with autograph books open aiming to collect, alongside experience from the friendly trip to St George’s Park, the signatures of an England side tipped by many as Euro 2022 favourites.

In 10 days’ time many of those same Northern Ireland players will stand in St Mary’s Stadium ready to face England as equals within the coveted pool of 16-strong Euro 2022 finalists.

Northern Ireland senior women's manager Kenny Shiels in conversation with his squad. Pic by PressEye Ltd.

Lining out in Southampton for group games with Norway (July 7) and Austria (July 11) before tackling England will create another landmark in a rise decorated with milestone moments for a group of Northern Ireland players ranked 59th in the world at the time of Shiels’ May 2019 appointment.

Although proud of his contribution to date in such a special story which has offered women’s football in Northern Ireland a significant boost that could produce a positive impact on generations, a look at Shiels’ track record will highlight a career defined by the pursuit of progress beyond measure and desire to demand his players exceed expectations.

Now in his fifth decade of management, Shiels has a track record of taking teams beyond previous markers - from against-the-odds trophy success or European qualification at club level to helping Northern Ireland men’s under 17s reach a first European Championships tournament.

His thirst for knowledge and passion for the game remain as rich as ever and he is relishing the chance to help his players showcase the spirit at the heart of success so far alongside Europe’s finest.

As the romance of Northern Ireland’s rise meets the reality of an increased spotlight, Shiels maintains his influence is based around drawing out individual potential rather than as dictator.

“I am always trying to evolve with the changes that happen in the game,” said Shiels. “If a coach wants to be successful he or she needs to change with the changes.

Football itself has changed - the whole demographic of the sport, the psychology of the game has practically taken over how players react to things like disappointment, happiness, dealing with periods of inconsistency, mood swings etc...there is so much emphasis on mental health.

“I started out in the 1980s, so this marks my fifth decade in management and, personally, it’s been fantastic and I still feel fresh and fit despite that innings.

“I just strive to give my best for my country and treat the whole experience as an honour.

“When you reflect back on that transition from the first day together with the Northern Ireland squad, it has been remarkable.

“At club level you can buy, sell and trade but with international football it’s obviously different and to have this journey with practically the same players is wonderful.

“The players have really enjoyed it, we’ve a great bunch and you just try to strike a chord with each individual.

“It’s about trying to facilitate talent.

“I can be a tough task master but we always talk about trying to bring out what’s inside you.

“Everyone falls but any success must come from trusting yourself and the greatest relationship you can ever have is with yourself, in any walk of life.

“It’s about self-belief, trust and integrity and then you can push beyond any of those ceilings.

“We constantly ask the question of what is inside plus then how you can deliver a successful commitment.

“We revisit those questions to help us move forward.

“We just want to give our best and play with pride for our country.”

Shiels’ squad selection is another example of the romance and reality of this Northern Ireland story - a 23-strong panel shaped by tactical plans and the physical and mental demands of tournament life but also the opportunity to reward.

“I think we sit in the toughest group but we go in without fear, even if those cards seemed stacked against us,” said Shiels. “I can draw some parallels with previous times in my career when you go in feeling like you’ve been fed to the lions but we go into every challenge with a positive attitude.

“As a management team and staff we are quite demanding but it’s all down to the players and to go on a run to eventually qualify was just amazing.

“When it came to selecting the squad we had to make choices.

“We have a number of players in the 30s age range and aware this could be a swansong or only chance to experience such a situation.

“We refuse to stand still or stop pushing for progress overall.

“But everything we do is towards giving everything for our country and family.

“So, of course, there also had to be that reward for those who helped get us to this point across so many years.

“Even if you sit as the best in the world, that drive should never stop and you must always set goals but always be realistic.

“We’ve created a monster for ourselves in some respects but we’ve all come along together on a journey towards this tournament.

“We have this wonderful platform and know how much we can offer.

“It’s an adventure...an opportunity that we must embrace and approach with full commitment.

“The measure, for us, is always about can we get better.”