World Cup qualifiers: 'I'm never happy' - Shiels demands more as NI pass Windsor Park test

By Andy GrayBBC Sport NI
Kenny Shiels has raised Northern Ireland's level but he continuously demands more from his team
Kenny Shiels has raised Northern Ireland's level but he continuously demands more from his team

Two games, six points, eight scored with none conceded. You would think that's as good as it gets to start a World Cup qualifying campaign.

"We were decent, but no better than that," was the brutal yet honest assessment from manager Kenny Shiels. In his search for perfection, he always demands more.

After a frustrating start, Northern Ireland beat Latvia 4-0 on their Windsor Park homecoming thanks to second-half goals by Louise McDaniel, Kirsty McGuinness, Marissa Callaghan and Rachel Furness.

With an opening-day victory over Luxembourg at Inver Park on Friday, it means Northern Ireland won consecutive World Cup qualifiers for the first time in their history.

The transformation under Shiels since his arrival in 2019 has been well documented, and his constant desire to improve, both individually and collectively, ultimately led to their historic Euro 2022 qualification.

And now his attention and focus is set on the Everest-sized task that lies ahead for Northern Ireland - World Cup qualification - but it's one the 65-year-old is relishing.

Formidable England top the group and it is set to be a two-horse race between NI and higher-ranked Austria for the runners-up spot and the play-off that comes with it. Shiels knows the challenge that awaits, and with a crucial home game with Austria coming in October the manager wants his team to raise their level further still.

"I think we need to look at getting better again," said Shiels on Tuesday's performance at NI returned to the National Stadium after a nine-year absence.

"Tonight was a little bit difficult for them, with the occasion. Our distribution, the timing of the pass, the movement - it was out of sync tonight and I'm sure the nerves had a part to play in that.

"Our best performance was in the second half. The fluency was better, the way we moved the opposition was better and the way we finished was better.

"We have come through the pandemic and we have been brilliant so far but we have a lot to do and the girls know that.

"We have three clean sheets in a row, which is pretty good, but we have to try and push on to be better than that."

Captain McGuinness scores as Northern Ireland put four past Latvia

With two games Northern Ireland were expected to win against lowly opposition, Shiels took a gamble to play all 20 outfield players across the opening matches.

Shiels called it a "massive task", but ultimately it was a risk worth taking as it provided youngsters with valuable experience and the necessary six points were collected.

"I thought we could experiment with that in this group and get more developmental on the pitch - I achieved that," he said.

"Being high risk as I am, I felt we could do that and achieve two outcomes which would be very satisfactory.

"We achieved our outcomes and we got development players on the pitch, which is fantastic for them and I feel really proud of that."

Players and fans in special duet

Tuesday's qualifier with Latvia will billed as a celebration as Northern Ireland's history-makers returned to Windsor Park for the first time since 2012.

Shiels had tried to rally the Green and White Army to come in their thousands to cheers his team on and just over 4,000 fans were in attendance.

It is a far cry from the 18,000 who usually fill the south Belfast stadium for crucial men's internationals, but it was an important step as NI's women grow their legacy - and those in attendance certainly found their voice.

There was the famous Windsor Park roar after the four goals, each with more ferocity than the first, and after the match there was a rendition of 'Sweet Caroline', where the players linked arms in front of the for a touching and somewhat poignant duet with those in attendance.

Northern Ireland's players joined the 4,079 fans in attendance for a rendition of Sweet Caroline
Northern Ireland's players joined the 4,079 fans in attendance for a rendition of Sweet Caroline

It's easy to forget that Northern Ireland's history-making campaign took place in the backdrop of empty grounds, and despite his grumblings about the performance, Shiels admitted it was a special moment for his side's homecoming.

"We will remember this, it is brilliant. The IFA have said [about playing at Windsor Park] a lot of times and I have turned it down. It has been me, because I felt we couldn't get a crowd big enough to create an atmosphere.

"It was special. It was fantastic to see the crowd here, obviously we now want more people to come out and support us."

Just with his team, Shiels constantly demands more from the Green and White Army as Northern Ireland develop as a unit.

Next up it's the highly-anticipated trip to Wembley with England, and while that is the glamour tie the game with Austria could be crucial in determining the outcome of Group D.

However, as the dust settles, Northern Ireland should take time to enjoy their eight-game unbeaten run before the autumnal tests which lie ahead.

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