Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Steven Beacom: Did Nigel Worthington ever have the fans on his side?

Nigel Worthington pictured yesterday in Italy in what could be one of his last training sessions with Northern Ireland
Nigel Worthington pictured yesterday in Italy in what could be one of his last training sessions with Northern Ireland

Former Northern Ireland midfielder Tommy Cassidy tells an enlightening story about management.

It relates to his time as Glentoran boss.

“I was under a bit of pressure, taking some stick from the terraces and we had an important game at the Oval,” recalls Cassidy.

“It was a tight match and we needed something to happen when George Neill, the legendary Glentoran defender, started one of his famous rampaging runs.

“He collected the ball on the edge of our box and sprinted forward. A fan in the stand above our dug-out shouted ‘Go on, Geordie go on’.

“George raced past a couple of opposition players to reach the halfway line and more of our supporters stood up bellowing ‘Go on, Geordie go on’.

“His pace quickened and he left another player in his wake. By now most of those in the stand were on their feet, crying ‘Go on, Geordie go on’.

“George was flying like an Olympic sprinter. He roared past two more defenders to get to the by-line. The Oval was going crazy — the place was bouncing and everyone was squealing ‘Go on, Geordie go on’.

“Then George crossed the ball and it went high and wide over the bar. The next thing I heard was someone shouting ‘For God’s sake Cassidy, you’re useless!’ Priceless.

“It showed me I’d lost the fans and even though I went on to guide the Glens to an Irish Cup, I never truly got them on my side and eventually left sooner than I' d hoped. Once you lose them it's almost impossible to get them back,” added Cassidy.

I relay this tale because it reminds me of Nigel Worthington’s tenure as Northern Ireland manager.

There’s no doubt he has lost the fans.

The question is did he ever really have them in the first place?

Replacing Lawrie Sanchez was never going to be easy. Sanchez walked out on our wee country and recently displayed unedifying character traits when he attacked the current boss at a time when he needed support from his peers.

The ex-Wimbledon midfielder, though, inspired two of the most celebrated victories in Northern Ireland history, against England and Spain, and left with our national team top of a Euro 2008 qualifying table. As such when Worthington took over Sanchez was still a huge hero amongst the faithful, despite turning his back on us to earn big bucks at Fulham.

In his second and third competitive matches, Nigel effectively changed Sanchez’s winning team by dropping steady defender Stephen Craigan. Defeats followed against Latvia and Iceland, the Euro 2008 dream faded and Worthington was left to fight a losing battle with frustrated supporters after that.

I’ve questioned Nigel’s position for some time — the only journalist to do so — and called for him to go five weeks ago after the shocking 4-1 defeat in Estonia, feeling that change was needed. That night the travelling Green and White Army expressed the same view in hostile fashion. Friday’s 2-1 loss at home to the same opposition enhanced that opinion, with other media men finally coming round to the same way of thinking. Worthington must go!

Now we must look to the future and a new manager. He’ll need the fans with him right from the start.

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