Sunderland AFC’s connections to Northern Ireland have, arguably, never been stronger - particularly in the men’s first team squad where Carl Winchester, Corry Evans, Trai Hume, and new boy Daniel Ballard are all full internationals.
On the women’s side, two former Black Cats will be taking the field this evening in the second Group A game of Euro 2022 - one a local lass and one an adopted Wearsider - bringing the total of former players to feature in the tournament so far to four.
When Sunderland-born Rachel Furness was offered the opportunity to represent the land of her Grandfather - Northern Ireland - she jumped at it. And in the following 17 years - despite recurrent knee injuries - she’s become their all-time leading goalscorer with 38 in 84 games.
Her time with the Lasses between 2010 and 2016 coincided with the longest sustained period of success in our history, with multiple WPL titles and the WPL League Cup under her belt before she helped us win WSL2 in 2014 alongside Beth Mead and Keira Ramshaw.
Now playing as a professional with Championship winners Liverpool, Furney’s role in Northern Ireland’s historic qualification campaign saw her named as Northern Ireland’s Sports Personality of the Year last year, and she’s the leading light in a side that is comprised of a mixture of amateur, professional and semi-professional players.
Rachel Furness named BBC NI Sports Personality of the Year as Jurgen Klopp vows to support Northern Ireland https://t.co/QuVPvTiotp— Belfast Telegraph (@BelTel) December 16, 2021
The second former SAFC player on show is the highly versatile and experienced defender Sarah Robson, who plays for her country under her maiden name of McFadden. Her five years at Eppleton came after a stint in Iceland and spanned much of the same highly successful time period as Furness’.
She then moved down the A690 to Durham in 2016, where she had six great seasons in the second tier, becoming a stalwart of one of the tightest and most aggressive defensive units in the league.
At 33, McFadden has gathered 80 international caps - the majority of which have come been alongside Furness. Her importance to the Wildcats was underlined earlier this year when she was named the North East Sports Writers Womens Player of the Year.
They’re the outsiders and underdogs in a group with two of the tournament’s big hitters and an awkward and well-drilled Austria to contend with, but have the passion, pride and togetherness to cause an upset.
Seven-months paid training for the amateur players provided by the Irish FA in the set-up will also be a huge boost and the benefit was evident when hey put up a great fight earlier this season in front of 15,000 at Windsor Park and will have a vocal support at St Mary’s in Southampton, where they will be based throughout the group stage.
Their opposition tonight, however, could hardly be stronger. Norway have Ada Hegerberg back in the squad after a five-year dispute with their FA over pay and conditions and 21 months away with an ACL injury last year.
McFadden will have the Champions League and Ballon D’Or winning Lyon forward to contend with along with the rest of the superstar squad, which also features Chelsea’s Maren Mjelde and Guro Reiten, Arsenal’s Frida Maanum, Man United’s Vilde Bøe Risa and Maria Thorisdottir, and Julie Blaksad of Manchester City.
The Norwegian side, coached by Martin Sjögren, are amongst the favourites to go all the way in this month’s European Championships, but if the Northern Irish can pull off a shock they will set up Group A to be one of the most exciting rather than a procession.
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