NORTHERN Ireland captain Marissa Callaghan says that excitement in the camp has reached fever pitch ahead of their historic first appearance at the European Championships this week.

The 36-year-old, who scored the opening goal in the second leg playoff victory against Ukraine which secured Northern Ireland’s place at their first ever major tournament, has admitted that nerves and adrenaline have prevented many in the camp from sleeping in the lead up to the tournament in England.

Northern Ireland kick off their Group A campaign with a game against Norway on Thursday (8pm), before facing Austria on Monday, July 11 and England on Friday, July 15.

“There’s a mixture of excitement and nerves, there hasn’t been much sleep this week,” she said.

“There’s apprehension as we don’t know what to expect, but of course there is excitement, I mean we are going to the Euros, it’s just amazing.”

Callaghan was one of six Cliftonville players selected in the 23-player squad, the largest contingent from any club in Kenny Shiels’s panel.

Fellow representatives from Solitude include West Belfast trio Caitlin and Kirsty McGuinness and Louise McDaniel, alongside Kelsie Burrows and Abbie Magee.

The long serving Reds’ ace believes that the coaching staff at Solitude deserve immense credit for transforming the club’s fortunes since their arrival last summer (Cliftonville Ladies currently sit top of the Premiership table at the mid-season break after finishing second last season) and providing the platform for players to receive international recognition.

“The coaching team of John McGrady, Brendan Lynch and Clare Carson deserve a big pat on the back,” added the team captain.

“Since they came in, they’ve worked so hard to get our club established.

“Before they arrived, we were on the verge of dismantling. Those guys came in and transformed the team and luckily enough we were able to attract international stars and now we are sitting top of the league with the hope we can go on and win it this year.

“It’s great that the club now have six of us representing on the international stage and we know they are very proud as are we.”

The midfielder, who has been capped 72 times, sustained a toe injury in May, but insists she is ready to go ahead of the group opener against Norway on Thursday.

It is the first of three testing games against higher ranked opposition and Callaghan acknowledged that it will be immensely difficult to get a result against two of the favourites for the tournament in Norway and England.

“These things are set to test you and it was crazy when it happened,” said the West Belfast native.

“Obviously, there were question marks am I going to make it or am I not, but the recovery has been really good. It’s been an interesting six weeks let’s say but there was no way it was going to stop me from getting to the Euros. I’ve had a good week in training so I’m ready to go.

“I think every group would have been tough as we are up against the top fifteen teams in Europe but the good thing for us is that we are familiar with Norway, Austria, and England.

“We have played them all within the last three years and we do know it’s going to be a challenge, but we always go into a game wanting to win and we will be fully prepared.

“We will go out and have full belief that we can get results. We are the classic underdog story and we have relished that label so far. Our aim is to go out and show what we can do.”

Kirsty McGuinness is set to spearhead the attack  

Kirsty McGuinness is set to spearhead the attack  

Callaghan’s club and international teammate Louise McDaniel echoed the skipper’s excitement for the tournament, and the prospect of seeing Southampton, where all three of Northern Ireland’s group games will be staged, taken over by the Green and White Army.

“I don’t feel like its sunk in yet that we are here,” she said.

“It’s amazing that we now have travelling fans and that people are willing to come out and support us, so I think it’ll be great to have them come over and we are really looking forward to it.”

McDaniel has already made history twice in her short international career, becoming the first woman to score at Windsor Park as well as the first to score for Northern Ireland in a major tournament when she netted in the U19 European Championships against Scotland in a 1-1 draw.

Despite her previous experience of tournament football, the 21-year-old believes that preparation for this tournament is much changed to the one on home soil five years ago.

“I feel like it’s completely different,” she opined.

“Back then I was younger and didn’t know what to expect but now the atmosphere is different. I’m a lot more excited to go whereas last time I was more worried but now I can go enjoy it and express myself.”

Kirsty McGuinness, who will be one of the main creative threats for Shiels’ side having already netted fourteen international goals, believes they are set to reap the rewards of the six-month full-time training camp implemented in January for the domestic based players to help best prepare them for the demands of tournament football.

 “It’s been great training full time and being in with the team every day, it has really helped us with our progress,” said McGuinness who is also an accomplished Gaelic footballer with St Paul’s GAC.

“We just can’t wait to get there go on the pitch and show everyone what we can do.

“We are not there to make up numbers, we qualified the same way everyone else did so were excited to go out there and play.”