Tallinn last month and the Northern Ireland supporters were going crazy. And not in a good way. As our national team slipped to an embarrassing 4-1 defeat to Estonia that wrecked Euro 2012 qualification dreams, Nigel Worthington started to get it in the neck.
In my time watching Northern Ireland, I’ve never witnessed our manager receive such a hostile reaction from his own supporters.
“Nigel, Nigel time to go,” they belted out, quickly followed by a crueller taunt: “Nigel, Nigel on the dole”.
And this about a bloke who in the previous day’s Press conference had labelled the Northern Ireland fans the best in the world after I asked him what he thought of the Green and White Army, fresh from boos and jeers following a 1-0 defeat to Serbia a few days earlier when one supporter threw his shirt at the boss as he stood watching the game.
On the way back from Tallin to Belfast, I lost count of the number of Northern Ireland fans telling me Worthington and his £450,000 salary had to go.
It shouldn’t be like this.
Northern Ireland are at their best and most dangerous when together as one — players, manager and fans all pulling in the same direction.
When that has happened in the past anything has been possible. There’s no doubt the players are behind Nigel. It’s the fall-back position for footballers to back an under-fire boss so the support — and it is genuine — from lads like Gareth McAuley, Steve Davis, Chris Baird, Chris Brunt and Warren Feeney has not surprised me.
Nor has the support among some of my media colleagues, who enjoy a fantastic working relationship with Nigel, which is in stark contrast to the frostiness of the Lawrie Sanchez era.
Fans though aren’t bothered by that. What they are interested in is results.
And if everyone is being honest here, they have NOT been up to scratch lately.
Northern Ireland have won just TWO games in the last 22. That’s a pathetic record, yes, even for a country as small as ours — an excuse trotted out more than the phrase “I’m on a journey” in the X-Factor.
It’s not like we’ve been playing Brazil and Argentina every month.
In the current European Championship campaign, we have suffered two of the worst results in our history — 1-1 away to the Faroe Islands and the 4-1 loss in Estonia were embarrassments of the higher scale.
As I wrote yesterday, we are better than that. Or should be.
I’ve said I believe Nigel should go at the end of this campaign. That’s not being disloyal — it’s just the way I see it, just like when I called for Sammy McIlroy to go. It’s nothing personal. I loved Sammy and I like Nigel, but you have to see the bigger picture and what will be better for Northern Ireland.
Just like when Sammy left, a fresh start is required. I’ve felt for a while unless there are consistent improvements in the team in modern day international football managers have a shelf life of two campaigns.
Nigel has had two-and-a-half and after becoming boss when our national team was top of a European Championship qualifying group. We now find ourselves in fifth place four years later.
He says he would like a new deal when his current one ends in December, but I understand while he has his backers in the IFA, others have lost faith, fearing a fan backlash if he stays.
Should Nigel and the boys pull off two wins in the forthcoming games with Estonia and Italy, and Serbia lose their last two group games, which would see us qualify for the Euro 2012 play-offs, I would be overjoyed. I wouldn’t just offer Worthy a new long term contract, I’d give him a knighthood.
And I’d offer the most humble apology for doubting him in the first place.
But with Nigel and the players already resigned to another qualifying failure, I’m not filled with confidence about the prospect of a miracle happening.
Worthington has displayed admirable dignity in the face of abuse from the fans, and bewildering attacks from Sanchez and Kilmarnock boss Kenny Shiels.
Sanchez’s morning-after-the-awful-Tallinn-night-before attack was a disgrace and an affront to the unwritten rule among managers about publicly calling for another’s head.
But I suspect Worthington was more taken aback by Shiels bizarrely stating that he wasn’t a “football man” and having a go at his backroom team.
He could have hit right back at Sanchez and Shiels. He didn’t, which showed a touch of class.
That’s the thing — it would be fantastic to see Nigel do well because he’s an engaging character who has introduced some positive elements since becoming boss and has unlike past managers, focused and aided our youth teams.
Ultimately though, like the football man he is, he knows that as the boss it’s all about results. Clearly they have not been good enough.