Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

And now we are below Vietnam

Sometimes it seems that when you’re Northern Ireland manager, it never rains, it pours.



Confirmation that Northern Ireland had fallen to 100th in the latest Fifa rankings has only brought a few more storm clouds into view over Windsor Park.

The landscape may be changing as the international venue is upgraded, but there is little to shout about when it comes to performances — unless you’re a Linfield fan of course!

There are a few silver linings on those dark clouds as Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill is excited by the sensational form of Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley in England’s top flight.

And, despite the financial crisis that has rocked Rangers, Steven Davis and Andrew Little keep showcasing their talent.

But Northern Ireland are moving in the wrong direction in the ratings table and the Green and White Army are right to be concerned.

It may be “our wee country” but 100th spot — following a drop of seven places — is nothing to be proud of and reason to be very concerned.

O’Neill, now just over 100 days in the hot seat, must reverse this downward trend which has continued following a disappointing 3-0 friendly defeat to Norway in late February.

There is no honeymoon period when you are a Northern Ireland manager, certainly not when you have a World Cup qualifying group on the horizon incorporating Russia, Portugal, Israel, Azerbaijan and Luxembourg.

In August 2007 and April 2009, Northern Ireland hit the dizzy heights of 27th in the Fifa chart so a slide all the way down to 100th is depressing.

Of course, the team has plunged to deeper depths — hitting 124th in January, 2004.

Northern Ireland are level in 100th spot with Antigua and below giants of the international stage such as Guyana (99), Vietnam (97) and Oman and Bahrain (both 94).

During Lawrie Sanchez’s reign from 2004 to 2007, Northern Ireland were able to punch above their weight in spectacular style and that’s the daunting challenge in front of O’Neill.

But the former Shamrock Rovers boss has stressed the importance of positive thinking in his camp and the form of Manchester United defender Jonny Evans gives him hope for the future.

“Jonny has been excellent,” said O’Neill. “The level of consistency in his play and the number of games he’s played is phenomenal.

“He’s had an excellent season and really established himself, becoming a huge part of their title challenge.

“I’m also pleased for the Rangers boys as it’s a fantastic club and it’s wonderful to see Andrew (Little) get a chance.

“Rangers are a club that needs to be in Scottish football and the fact that we have a few lads there makes it all the more important that the club pulls through.”

The Republic of Ireland, meanwhile, have climbed one place to 18th, alongside Switzerland, with England down one to seventh. Wales and Scotland improve to 41st and 48th positions respectively.

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