Monday, 10 October 2011

We've stopped making plans with Nigel

On the back page of the Guardian's sports section today there was a picture of Gerry Armstrong scoring his most famous goal - the one against Spain in the 1982 World Cup. It appeared under the headline "What We Miss About Football ..." followed by the strapline " Northern Ireland being good. Ouch.
That it was printed on the same day as the much anticipated (by Northern Ireland fans at any rate) news that Nigel Worthington was to leave his post as the international manager after the latest failure - a 2-1 home defeat at the feet of Estonia - doesn't seem particularly prescient in the circumstances. There has been an end-of-era feel around the international side of late, most notably with the retirement of Aaron Hughes - fast-forwarded by injury. The game against Italy tomorrow night - Worthington's last game - will just cement that mood.
Before we start getting wrapped up with who should take over (though I have one Herald colleague who's touting for Jim Magilton to get the job), it's worth maybe making a quick assessment of  the Worthington era.  How quick? Two wins in the last 23 games. Enough said perhaps. Certainly he had lost the support of the fans some time ago. Not even the odd Paddy McCourt wonder goal (albeit against the Faroes) is compensation for that.
In his defence you could talk about the paucity of his resources (or "squeezing blood from a stone" as Worthington had it) and point to the fact that in the current European campaign and in the World Cup qualifiers for 2010 Northern Ireland were at least in with a chance (however slim) until the peneultimate games in the groups.
And of course there are players born in the north who have chosen to pursue (or at least try to pursue) an international career with the Republic of Ireland side - most notably  Manchester United's Darron Gibson, Stoke's Marc Wilson and Preston North End's Daniel Devine.
In a Radio Ulster documentary on Sunday 
Gerry Armstrong even claimed there is a measure of "tapping up" involved - though I'd imagine that such choices are mostly down to politics and/or the fact that the Republic are more likely to qualify for the Euros or a World Cup than Northern Ireland any time soon.
The realist in me knows all this. Knows, too, that even when George Best played for Northern Ireland we got humped more than a few times. But the fan in me remembers that the 1982 and 86 squads had few players from the big English clubs of the time. There were talented players there - Jennings, Whiteside, O'Neill most obviously - but the success came because Billy Bingham organised them well as a team.
When I was interviewed by both Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle about Whose Side Are You On? both interviews were preceded by John Motson's commentary of Armstong's goal against Spain. I never get tired of hearing it, but it would be nice to hear something newer. Over to you  Jim Magilton ... or Iain Dowie ...or whoever gets the job. Isn't Martin O'Neill at a loose end at at the moment?

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