NORTHERN Ireland women’s manager Kenny Shiels has hailed the “greatest sporting achievement” by anyone in the North after his side qualified for a major tournament for the first time in their history.
Second half goals from Marissa Callaghan and Nadene Caldwell sealed a 2-0 victory over Ukraine in Belfast on Tuesday night and a 4-1 victory overall on aggregate.
The historic play-off win means Northern Ireland qualify for the European Championships, to be held in England next summer.
The home side went into the return leg at Seaview following Friday’s 2-1 victory in Kiev, thanks to goals from Rachel Furness and Simone Magill.
Speaking to BBC Sport NI after the game, an emotional Kenny Shiels said: “It’s unbelievable.
“I look at my staff and there was grown men crying at the full-time whistle there and I am nearly in bits myself.
“It is down to the girls at the end of the day. When I came here in 2019, the girls were in bits and I was a new face. I may have helped a wee bit but they were self-driven and they took on the challenge.
“We look at Rory McIlroy and what Steven Davis has done for Northern Ireland. This is by far and away the best ever sporting achievement for Northern Ireland if you put it in its context.
“Sixteen of these girls play in the Irish League but they played against people playing for all the top clubs in Europe. It is incredible what they have achieved.
“I was nervous today but when I got here, I felt so comfortable. There are people on this earth with terrible diseases and I was worried about losing a football match - I feel very guilty over that.
“At the same time, the inspiration that we gave each other cannot be overlooked. They are the best achievers of all time.
“There is nobody who can match what they have achieved tonight.”
Northern Ireland went into the game without attacker Rachel Furness after she suffered a broken ankle in the first leg in Ukraine last Friday.
The home side began well at Seaview and looked dangerous from set-plays throughout.
On six minutes, Laura Rafferty or Simone Magill could not sort their feet out in time to get a meaningful effort on goal after the ball was swung in from a corner.
Ukraine created very little in the 90 minutes and a snap-shot from Apanaschenko harmlessly drifted wide as the first half drew to a close.
Northern Ireland made the crucial breakthrough on 55 minutes after Cliftonville's Marissa Callaghan got on to her own flick-on from a free-kick before squeezing the ball into the net.
Ukraine never looked like scoring on the night and they were reduced to ten players on 86 minutes after Pantsulaya was shown a straight red card for a blatant foul on Sarah McFadden.
The historic win was sealed in the 95th minute as Nadene Caldwell pounced on an error in the Ukrainian defence following great work from Magill to round the 'keeper and seal a 2-0 success.
Northern Ireland captain Marissa Callaghan praised the team for their historic efforts.
“I am shellshocked to be honest,” the West Belfast woman told BBC Sport NI.
“Ukraine didn’t stand a chance tonight because we believed in ourselves.
“Kenny and his team came in and instilled this tremendous belief in us and look what we have done.
“We battled so hard and we gave everything. We are going to the Euros next year. It’s unreal.
“I had a feeling all day it was going to happen and it did. It is just amazing.
“It means the world for women’s football. I believe it was written in the stars tonight. All the young girls watching this can dream of wearing the green shirt because it is the most amazing feeling ever.”
NORTHERN IRELAND: Burns, McKenna, Nelson, Hutton, Holloway, McCarron, Rafferty, McFadden (Finnegan), Callaghan (Caldwell), Magill, McGuinness (Kelly)
UKRAINE: Samson, Filenko, Kravets (Kravchuk), Shmatko, Basanska, Boychenko (Malakhova), Pantsulaya, Khimich, Ovdiychuk, Apanaschenko, Kunina (Kozlova)