Bristol City defender Laura Rafferty says that it has always been a dream to represent Northern Ireland at a major tournament finals.
The Green and White Army are just 90 minutes away from securing qualification for the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 despite being rank outsiders when qualifying kicked-off.
A four-match winning end to the regular qualifying campaign saw Kenny Shiels’ side finish as group runners-up to land a play-off tie with the Ukraine and Northern Ireland went on to defy the odds again as they won the first leg 2-1 in Kovalivka on Friday.
Speaking to FA Women’s Super League Full-Time ahead of Tuesday’s second leg in Belfast, Bristol City defender Rafferty said that she has always dreamt of playing in a major tournament finals while she paid tribute to the Northern Ireland team for continuing to build and progress during her long spell out of the team due to injury.
“It has always been a dream. I followed it very closely, I have been in touch with the girls and the coaching staff the whole way,” she said. “We just kept building and the difference from my last game in 2019 to now, to see the transition, it’s just a whole new set up. It is really amazing to be around and that is credit to the staff and the girls themselves for their hard work.
“With the pandemic as well, it has not been easy for anyone but it is definitely a credit to everyone involved.”
Rafferty’s return to the Northern Ireland squad has come off the back of her rebuilding her fitness at Bristol City this season. The defender highlighted the role played by club manager Matt Beard in her call-up whilst saying that her FA Women’s Continental League Cup experiences this season could be a benefit to the Northern Ireland squad.
“Matt has helped me a lot in terms of my confidence,” Rafferty said. “We always knew that the ability was there in terms of the sharpness, it was about doing one-two touch, it was constant talking to me getting that back and my confidence is sky high now, getting the call-up just helps that even more.
“These are big games that we played parts in (at Bristol City), it’s experience that I can help share as well. We were underdogs at Bristol so for me, it is nothing new, nobody expects anything. When you do achieve things, it makes it that bit sweeter.”
With Rafferty having been out of the Northern Ireland picture for some time due to that long term injury, the player was naturally overjoyed to get the call from national team boss Shiels ahead of the nation’s landmark play-off.
“I was nervous for sure,” she said. “I had a lot of talks with Kenny during my recovery period and the move to Bristol has helped that tremendously with the effort that they have put in to get me back where I am.
“I think that the games that I have played at club level have showed a side to Kenny that he liked and I know that I have a lot of experience to bring.
“We didn’t know what the outcome was going to be but I can just tell you that I cried my eyes out when I got the call up.
“It is just a blessing to be here with everyone and we just need to finish off the job now because just getting selected isn’t enough, I need to help do a job and fingers crossed, we are going to do that.”
The second leg of Northern Ireland’s UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 play-off is scheduled to kick-off at 7.45pm on Tuesday evening and will be broadcast live on BBC Red Button.