Belfast Telegraph

Israel v Northern Ireland: At least let's go out with pride and passion

By Steven Beacom

The roller coaster ride will finish tonight. There's been a few highs and far too many stomach-churning lows. But, come 8pm this evening, we'll be able to open our eyes and say 'thank goodness, that's over".

Another qualifying campaign will have passed us by... with Northern Ireland failing to qualify or even going close.

Never mind, don't you know we are saving that joy of joys for Euro 2016 to mark the 30th anniversary of our last appearance at a major finals? Mexico 1986, those were the days.

So much has changed since then. New countries have entered the football world and some old countries have become stronger.

Most of the time it seems like our wee country has stood still and – bar the David Healy years – has been left in the shade because of it.

The introduction of Jim Magilton as the IFA's Elite Performance Director will in decades to come hopefully claw back some of the lost ground. Sad to say it really could be that long.

In his press conference yesterday, current Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill said to do his job right would take 25 years! He did have a smile on his face, but there was a jibe behind the joke.

Even so we should be able to take more than TWO points from a possible TWELVE against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, which has been the case in this World Cup campaign.

Michael knows that as well as the rest of us, though, stung by recent criticism, yesterday he stated: "I think people overlook the size of the country we are, the number of players we have to choose from and what people perceive as minnows is sometimes down to a lack of knowledge about international football."

For the record Luxembourg is a smaller nation than Northern Ireland, with less choice, most of their internationals are part-time players and believe me they are 'minnows' in international football. Azerbaijan are better, but not enough to draw with us at Windsor and beat us comfortably in Baku.

Entering tonight's final game of the campaign in Israel we're stuck between Azerbaijan and Luxembourg in the Group F table with goal difference saving us from rock bottom spot.

Highly unsatisfactory. Only a win in Tel Aviv could lift us to fourth.

That's unlikely with three quarters of the first choice back four missing – Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans – through injury or suspension.

For those who are left, they must give deliver a spirited showing for the fans, themselves and the manager.

It would be welcome if the team could eradicate the two basic problems that have blighted this campaign; taking chances that come their way and cutting out errors at the back which lead to opposition goals. If Israel are to win, let's make them do something special.

Experienced campaigners like captain Steven Davis, Chris Brunt, Sammy Clingan and Chris Baird can set the tone while for players like Craig Cathcart, Niall McGinn and Martin Paterson this is another chance to impress at international level.

Six points from nine matches is a dismal return. I'd take seven from 10 right now, but if we do go down let's do it with some pride and passion, so sadly lacking in Luxembourg and Baku.

Belfast Telegraph

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