Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland players must step up in EVERY game

By Steven Beacom

Roy Carroll was the first to leave the team hotel early yesterday morning. The big, blonde from Fermanagh, one of the most likeable sportsmen you will ever meet, was making his way back to Greece where his club Olympiakos are based.

He was distraught, hurting from the humiliating events of the night before.

After Tuesday's debacle in the Stade Josy Barthel he threw his gloves, shirt, shorts and socks into the 1200 strong Green and White Army.

Such was his demeanour in the hotel that some in the Northern Ireland party feared he was thinking about retiring from international football.

I hope not. Roy is the best goalkeeper we have got by a distance and we need him for the remainder of this World Cup campaign and the Euro 2016 qualifiers.

No point making a snap decision on the back of what happened in Luxembourg. If all the players did that Michael O'Neill wouldn't have any to pick from for next month's games with Azerbaijan and Luxembourg!

I've know Roy for many, many years and believe me he really cares about Northern Ireland.

And that's the thing...I genuinely feel most of the current squad feel the same way, even if many of them weren't actually born in our wee country.

As Roy travelled to Greece, the rest of them boarded a flight bound for Heathrow from where they made journeys to all arts and parts around the UK in preparation for club games at the weekend.

The current Northern Ireland squad are not a vociferous bunch. Returning home yesterday they were even quieter than usual, looking sheepish and still shell-shocked by the embarrassing 3-2 defeat to Luxembourg.

O'Neill's players were thinking about how they could play so wonderfully well against top of the group Russia and beat them comfortably, and on top of that be in a winning position and controlling the game for the first hour against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal, and then deliver the dross they served up in Luxembourg on Tuesday night.

If Russia and Portugal are great white sharks and Northern Ireland are cods (make your own jokes up), Luxembourg are the tiddlers of world football.

How weird is it that we can mix it with the big fish, but are done up like a kipper when we are supposed to catch three points with ease?

Bear in mind this was no fluke victory from Luxembourg, with only four full-time players in their side. The scoreline of 3-2 actually flattered Northern Ireland. 5-2 would have given a more accurate reading of play.

Throw in the pitiful 1-1 draw at home to Luxembourg one year ago, the 1-1 draw against Azerbaijan (Gareth McAuley pictured showing his frustration) at Windsor Park and even the 2-0 defeat to Israel in Belfast and we have amassed the grand total of just TWO points from what were supposed to be our FOUR easiest games of the Group F campaign.

Yet look at our four hardest games against Portugal and Russia, home and away, and we have collected TWICE that number taking us to six points from eight matches to date.

I know this has been a common scenario with Northern Ireland down the decades but under O'Neill it has reached new levels of absurdity.

He was fuming with his players after the match and rightly so, but as boss he knows he must take responsibility too.

Attitude is a key factor here and it is the manager's job to ensure it is spot on.

Results and performances illustrate that Northern Ireland have the wrong attitude when faced with minnows in front of them and the favourites tag slapped on their shirts.

You would have thought that by now these players would have learned their lesson.

Remember against Luxembourg in Belfast, they didn't show the right mental strength and character and it cost them dear.

Yet in the corresponding fixture away from home, they were even worse, more lazy, more lethargic and downright sloppy all over the pitch.

It makes you ask are they just plain stupid?

The team has to see sense in the next two matches away to Azerbaijan and Israel otherwise they will be in serious danger of finishing bottom of a group in which fighting for third spot was a genuine possibility.

Maybe that's their cunning plan and they aren't silly after all. Finish bottom and the draw for the European Championships in February will see us seeded lower than a snake's belly invariably leading to us drawing all the big nations that we love playing against.

England, Spain, Sweden, Russia and Portugal – that's who we want. Bring them all on. At least we can give them a game.

The part-timers of Luxembourg? No thanks they'll only hammer us again!

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