Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Steven Beacom: New Northern Ireland manager faces tricky World Cup qualifying campaign

Interested in the Northern Ireland job: Michael O'Neill
Interested in the Northern Ireland job: Michael O'Neill

To Russia with love then. That’s where the Green and White Army are headed first in the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign.

The date in Moscow next year will be September 7.

That will bring back happy memories given it was on that very day in 2005 that Northern Ireland defeated England at Windsor Park.

Beating Russia in their own backyard would be an even bigger achievement.

The trip to Russia will be followed a month later by another tough assignment in Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo and all, with a home game against Luxembourg in between.

That’s the two most difficult matches in the group in the first three games.

What an introduction to competitive games for our new manager that will be.

Maybe given the huge interest in replacing Nigel Worthington the Irish FA delegation of President Jim Shaw, Chief Executive Patrick Nelson and head of international administration David Currie had a plan going into yesterday’s fixtures meeting in Luxembourg.

Picture the scene.

Shaw: “Right boys, you know all these no-hopers that fancy the manager’s job?”

Nelson: “Yes Jim.”

Currie: “Yes boss.”

Shaw: “Well, we are going to flush them out and give ourselves the trickiest start ever in the World Cup and see who is interested after that.”

Nelson: “Yes Jim.”

Currie: “Yes boss.”

Mission accomplished gents.

Joking aside, I’m sure Shaw, Nelson and Currie would have gone into the meeting with the best of intentions to give Northern Ireland the best chance possible of competing in the group.

It’s just a pity the new boss wasn’t in the room with them as I very much doubt any manager would welcome the start to the campaign.

If on the other hand the IFA took advice from any potential candidate and carried it out to the letter, they are clearly talking to the wrong man.

The fear is that by losing the first two out of the opening three matches — face it, that’s the likely scenario — we will be on the back foot right away.

On the upside, maybe the new manager will deliver a stunning result in Moscow or Lisbon or both, with the Russians and Portuguese suffering from Euro 2012 hangovers.

Good luck with that Jim, Iain, Michael, Gerry or whoever gets the nod.

At least Avram Grant has declared he’s not interested. Be grateful for small mercies.

Personally I’d love to see Jim Magilton or Iain Dowie appointed. I’m confident either would do well. Better still get the these two old pals in together. Michael O’Neill is another fine candidate.

The new gaffer will see players like Steve Davis, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley, Grant McCann, Chris Brunt, Chris Baird and Kyle Lafferty as key figures in bringing joy back to the Northern Ireland fans.

After that desperately difficult start in the World Cup qualifiers, those players will attempt to home in on glory because they will have FOUR straight games at Windsor Park, starting in November against Azerbaijan.

Then Russia will visit Belfast for our first qualifying match in 2013 on March 22 with Israel arriving four days later.

Then we’ll be celebrate another anniversary — seven years since that David Healy hat-trick and a 3-2 victory over Spain — when Portugal are at Windsor on September 6.

That will be the last match at the home of Northern Ireland football for some time with the bulldozers moving in as part of the redevelopment of the stadium.

That’s why we’ll finish with three games on the road in Luxembourg, Azerbaijan and Israel, the last one on October 15, 2013.

Let’s hope we will have a little more than pride to play for by the time those matches come around.

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