Forget Rory McIlroy’s four major golf championships. Forget Steven Davis’ newly-acquired British caps record. Even forget the likes of Serena Williams, Usain Bolt or Steffi Graf.
or Northern Ireland women’s manager Kenny Shiels, nobody ‘until Kingdom come’ can match his side’s achievement of reaching the Women’s Euro 2022 finals.
The side ranked 49th in the world, who started the qualifying campaign as 32nd seeds of 48 teams, have reached a major tournament for the first time against all the odds, overcoming Ukraine – 25 world ranking places above them – in the play-off.
Their 2-0 second leg win at Seaview was completed with six part-time Irish League players in the starting XI (and another eight on the bench).
And now they’re rubbing shoulders with the best the continent has to offer.
It’s little wonder that an emotional Shiels was talking up his side’s achievement as greater than any other at full-time.
“You have to take it in its context,” he told the BBC. “We look at Rory McIlroy – what he has done for Northern Ireland, what Steven Davis has done for Northern Ireland (but) this here, far and away, the best ever sporting achievement for Northern Ireland – for the UK actually – if you take it in its context.
“These are amateur players, 16 of the panel play in the Irish League for Glentoran, Linfield, Cliftonville, Sion Swifts and Crusaders. I’m so grateful to those clubs. They’re playing against players who are playing for Riems and all the top teams in Europe, Barcelona players during the campaign, Manchester City, Arsenal.
“It’s incredible, what they’ve achieved. Incredible.
“They’re the best achievers of all time. There’s nobody can match what they’ve achieved. Nobody. Until Kingdom come.”
It was an Ashley Hutton 94th minute equaliser in Wales early in the campaign that lit the touch-paper, allowing four wins to end the group phase and tee up the unlikely play-off place, ultimately setting the stage for the spine-tingling upset to be completed.
“I look at my staff – grown men crying,” said Shiels. “I’m nearly in bits myself but it’s down to the girls at the end of the day.
“When I came in in 2019, the girls were traumatic, in bits, in pieces. I was the new face. I might helped a bit but they were self-driven and they took it on.
“I was nervous today but as soon as I got here on the pitch, I was so comfortable. I was nervous for them because we talk about positivity all the time and how we can deal with disappointments in our lives. There are people in this world with Motor Neurone Disease and all sorts of diseases and we’re worried about losing a football match – I feel guilty of that but by the same token, the inspiration that they give each other can’t be overlooked. They’re a great bunch of people, they really are.”