Northern Ireland Women's national team captain Marissa Callaghan insists the improvement of the Danske Bank Women’s Premiership is driving an upturn of results at international level.
Kenny Shiels’s national side are on the verge of a historic playoff spot for next year’s European Championships and will seal the spot with victory over Faroe Islands on Tuesday.
The current 23-player squad is comprised of 15 stars based in the top-flight of women’s football in Northern Ireland, with several others recent alumni of the division.
Callaghan is a player-coach for Cliftonville Ladies and she believes the division - which has five clubs with multiple players in the current squad - is at the heart of recent international success.
“The improvement of the league has been at the heart of the Northern Ireland team improving,” Callaghan explained.
“NIFL stepping in a few years ago has brought the entire standard up by another level and it’s striving the clubs to improve - to invest more in their teams and the facilities to produce this level of player.
“To see how far football has advanced here in the past few years is remarkable - that has been fueled by the investment of and support from the major bodies, so if that continues then women’s football can only continue this growth.
“Women’s football has such a massive future and every year the gap between it and the men’s game is narrowing.”
Callaghan is joined in the current international squad by her club teammate Toni-Leigh Finnegan, who only celebrated her 18th birthday in October.
This has special significance for the international captain, who began coaching the current Cliftonville star when she was just a nine-year-old, and is now teammates both at club and international level.
“One of my proudest moments was when Toni-Leigh made her international debut,” added Callaghan.
“She is a special talent and I have known her since she was very young, and to see her at this level and working so hard to fulfil her dream is fantastic.
“I was involved in coaching with the Northern Ireland development squad a few years ago when you had the likes of Emily Wilson and Abbie Magee (Danske Bank Women’s Premiership stars with Crusaders and Linfield respectively) coming through, and now they are full internationals within five years.
“There is a really special group of young players coming through and it shows that the result we have enjoyed yesterday are just the start for this team and the future is really bright.
“We really hope this run of results and the players coming through will continue to inspire young girls to play football, to get involved with their local teams and make careers for themselves.”
Callaghan has balanced a relentless schedule over the years which has not only included training and playing for club and country, but an array of coaching roles and initiatives to improve the women’s game in Northern Ireland.
Now aged 35, she believes the next step in her career - along with multiple other stalwarts of the Dankse Bank Women’s Premiership - is to remain involved with the clubs after they call time on their playing career.
“Players like myself and Danielle McDowell are getting our coaching badges and that is what we see as the next step for us,” she continued.
“We see the future as women coaches having a much greater prominence with the club teams, as that would be the natural step now that we have the first generation of players hanging up their boots.
“We think it is essential for the clubs to have individuals in charge who know women’s football inside out and know how to manage women.
“In the past there have been coaches involved who don’t understand the differences between the men’s and the women’s game, and don’t know how to handle those changes in the management.
“We want to see more females across the game not just in terms of player uptake and in coaching, but in officiating positions and administration roles - that is what we want and that is how we see the future.”
Whilst the future for Northern Ireland women’s football is hugely exciting, the international team could create history with a win at home to the Faroe Islands on Tuesday night, which would be their fourth victory on the spin.
“This is a moment I will cherish forever,” Callaghan continued.
“This is a really special group to be a part of and it is a really fantastic time for women’s football in Northern Ireland.
“In the 18 months since the coaching staff have come in, everyone has been getting better and better.
“You can see every single player developing and with so many great young players coming through, so it’s a really exciting time to be involved.
“We know we have the opportunity to be in a playoff, which is a historic opportunity for the team but everyone is just focused on each game as it comes - that is why we have been able to go on this run of wins.”
Shiels’s side were always fighting an uphill battle for qualification with Norway the big favourites for the group, with Wales ranked second going into the qualification stage.
“We knew that the way the fixtures came out, it was going to make it very tough for us as we had to play the top two seeds in our opening four games,” said Callaghan.
“The most important moment for us so far was Ashley Hutton scoring such a late equaliser in Wales, because not only was that a significant result but it gave us that moment that we could build on.
“You saw the result of the coaching straight away even when we lost against Norway because the players had the belief to get on the ball and show that they do have the ability to play at this level.
“That belief kept us going into the Wales game and that is why the team was able to fight right up until the end, and we knew that having the Belarus and Faroe Islands gams at the end would give us a chance.”
This is a hugely exciting time for everyone involved with women’s football in Northern Ireland, and there is nobody who has had quite the level of influence as Callaghan in elevating the standard of the game in recent years.