So it’s all over for another European Championship. Northern Ireland won’t be going to the finals tournament, which will be held in the Ukraine & Poland next summer and we maintain our 100% failure record in qualification.
This past week has seen ‘Norn Iron’ play out it’s final two matches in the campaign with a home match v Estonia on Friday night & then an away match v Italy on Tuesday just past. Two matches which felt very different if the truth be told.
Estonia are, on the face of it, about our level. A small country, no track record of qualification, with players playing here, there & everywhere. When the draw was made, they were considered one of the teams we should be beating at home if we’re to maintain our standards & beating away if we were to qualify.
Bearing in mind the atrocious performance in Tallinn, the mood going into Friday’s game was pretty sombre. Expectations were relatively low… yet there was still a sense of expectation. If we picked our best XI and played to our best, we should, in truth, beat these boys at home.
The first half demonstrated that I feel. Sure, it was a tetchy affair, but we went a goal up early on and frankly didn’t look undeserving of it. It was the second half which was the proverbial kick in the guts. We simply didn’t raise our game when they did and by default made Estonia look excellent. Sure, the refereeing was atrocious and the lead up to the second Estonian goal was a shambles from the officials point of view, but in truth we didn’t deserve anything from the game with such a pathetic performance.
As it turned out, the six points that Estonia took from us ensured they finished second in our group & would go on to the Play Offs for a slot in the Finals tournament. How gutting.
And so to the wee task of Italy away…
My first forays into International Football were Spain v NI (3-0) and Italy v NI (2-0). In neither game did we expect anything yet in truth, the performances on the field weren’t so bad. Sure we lost convincingly, but these teams are the cream of the crop. A standard NI doesn’t go to a top ten nation & win – only the extremely excellent NI teams do that (see West Germany v NI circa 1983!). This game has the same feel, a feeling in truth which has probably been absent in yeas from an away Northern Ireland match. Inevitability.
Italy had already qualified. We were sure of not. There was in effect, nothing to lose – and you could be sure we would lose. And yet, despite losing 3-0 (as the history books will record it) the performance was pretty sound. I’d actually argue that all three of their goals were avoidable, as is always the way with Northern Ireland, so there was actually some heart to take from it all. A number of young players, who had a cap or two each pitched up, did well & have given us all encouragement for the future and possibly the new manager a thought or two.
It’s fair to say, that practically everyone believes the time is right for Nigel Worthington’s reign to come to an end. Some of the Media in NI possibly disagree, but then they were so chummy with him & the IFA that their saucer of milk has been taken away. They might have to work for it in the future. And apparently some of the players love him too… possibly several of those who frankly aren’t fit enough to play international football yet seem to continue to be first choice!
My own view is that he started badly when he took over in 2007 in the European Qualifiers, recovered a wobbly ship & displayed signs that he knew what he was doing during the 2010 World Cup Qualifiers, only for the wheels to fall off completely in this European Qualifying campaign. He was given a fair crack of the whip & it didn’t work. I’m pleased that it’s all been done in the natural cycle of things – mid campaign sackings (or walkaways for that matter) are messy affairs – and it appears to be in everyone’s interest (except the Media & those resting on former performances).
I believe the past four years have represented our best chance in a generation to qualify for a major tournament. We didn’t capitalise on Healy’s wonderful form for Euro ‘08. We weren’t aggressive enough for World Cup ‘10 and we didn’t play to our strengths for Euro ‘12. We’ve now lost some of our best players over that time in Aaron Hughes, Stephen Craigan & Maik Taylor to retirement whilst Healy & Feeney are past their best. The replacements in some instances are not bad (Camp for Taylor, J Evans for Hughes), but in others it’s ‘wet behind the ears’ (full backs & up front particularly). And yet I believe that if we play our best team, with the right tactics we can be a competitive team. World Cup ‘14 is beyond us for sure (with a really tough group), but if we can get 2 years experience behind this squad and with a broadened Euro ‘16 tournament to come, we should be aiming for qualification there.
We just need someone to recognise our strengths & weaknesses and plan accordingly. Something which Nigel Worthington didn’t do. Thanks for the memories & arrivederci.