Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Steven Beacom: Three games to decide Nigel Worthington’s Northern Ireland future

Nigel Worthington

It was as telling as it was uncomfortable to watch. With time ticking by at Windsor Park on Friday night and Northern Ireland trailing 1-0 to Serbia, an angry and frustrated fan threw his shirt at manager Nigel Worthington.

Given the atrocious weather I'd have thought that the supporter would have wanted to keep as much clothing as possible to stay warm. But, hey, football does strange things to you.

It was a pity to see Worthington treated like that because as a player he was an excellent performer for his country, winning 66 caps, and as a manager he has done his level best.

Bottom line, though, many fans, including the one who got shirty on Friday, don't think his best is good enough.

They'll tell you the team has gone backwards under his supervision, which began four years ago, when he replaced Lawrie Sanchez.

Nigel has three games left in the Euro 2012 qualifiers to change that mindset around.

Right now those who jeered the 1-0 defeat to Serbia would say it's time for Worthington to go while certain IFA figures are keen to extend his £450,000-a-year contract.

The time to judge if Worthington has been a hit or miss as international boss will be after the two games with Estonia and trip to Italy which will end his second full campaign as boss. Wisely, IFA president Jim Shaw is thinking along the same lines.

If Northern Ireland finish fifth – the position they currently occupy – in the Group C table, it should be thank you and goodbye. Ditto fourth because by keeping Nigel on, the IFA would be rewarding mediocrity. Mind you, they've done that before.

Then there's third – not bad, but not what we wanted – leaving the IFA with a major decision to make.

Obviously if Nigel guides Northern Ireland to runners-up spot and a play-off place, Shaw will run faster than Usain Bolt to offer him a new contract. And rightly so.

The next three games are massive. They won't just decide what the Northern Ireland players and fans will be doing next summer – they'll also determine Nigel Worthington's international future.

Kyle’s a key man

Northern Ireland could do with Kyle Lafferty in Estonia. It's such a shame that a calf injury has ruled him out.

If the unpredictability of Paddy McCourt was missed in the defeat to Serbia, I suggest the absence of Lafferty was even more important.

Prior to Friday night, the Serbian coach told me Lafferty was the player they feared most, remembering that in Belgrade earlier in the campaign, the Rangers striker gave the home defence a torrid time. Unfortunately Lafferty only lasted just 45 minutes out there before succumbing to injury.

And therein lies the problem with Lafferty. For all his raw talent, illustrated by brilliant displays in Sweden, Poland and Serbia, he doesn't play often enough for club or country.

It's an amazing statistic that Lafferty has only played a full 90 minutes in four of his 29 internationals.

He needs to get fit and stay fit. His country needs him.

The Norn Iron hero is...

It was great to hear the Kop singing the name of Steve Davis after his uncharacteristic error gifted Serbia their goal at Windsor Park. Top support. It's estimated around 1,200 members of the Green and White Army will travel to Estonia for tomorow's game. They deserve much better than Friday night.