Belfast Telegraph

Card tricks hurting Northern Ireland

By Steven Beacom

In days of old the Northern Ireland players used to run a card school.

The aces and jacks have gone. Now it seems the only cards the players see are yellow and red which has had a damaging impact on Michael O'Neill's side during this World Cup qualifying campaign.

In seven matches in Group F to date, Northern Ireland have somehow racked up 20 YELLOW CARDS and TWO RED CARDS.

That's way too much leading to several suspensions that the manager can ill afford.

O'Neill was hit by a seven card trick last Friday in the thrilling contest with Portugal at Windsor Park.

The home team collected five yellow cards and two reds during the 4-2 defeat, with Cristiano Ronaldo completing a stunning hat-trick, after Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty were needlessly sent off ruling them out of tonight's match in Luxembourg.

It is the SECOND time in this campaign that Brunt and Lafferty have been suspended.

Gareth McAuley, Chris Baird and Daniel Lafferty have also missed matches after picking up two yellow cards in previous matches.

Entering tonight's encounter with Luxembourg, several others are walking a disciplinary tightrope. Jonny Evans, Martin Paterson, Steven Davis, Roy Carroll, Oliver Norwood and Dean Shiels are one caution away from not being available for next month's trip to Azerbaijan.

There are 53 European sides trying to qualifying for the 2014 finals in Brazil and only FIVE have picked up more bookings than Northern Ireland while just Montenegro, with four, have more red cards than O'Neill's team.

It's been said for many years that Northern Ireland must field their strongest XI on a consistent basis in order to compete at international level. That has definitely not been the case in this World Cup campaign.

Injuries and illness have ruled key players out at various times. That's unfortunate for the manager who can do nothing about the knocks, niggly or serious, his players pick up at club level, but it's all the bookings, which during a game can put players on edge, and the suspensions which have hurt even more.

Would you believe only two players Roy Carroll and Steve Davis have played in every Group F match?

It is no coincidence that in the brilliant battling performance that helped Northern Ireland draw 1-1 in Portugal, the visitors had NO bookings while in the 1-0 home win over Russia last month only two players saw yellow.

On the face of it, looking at the numbers of times Northern Ireland players have gone into the referee's notebook, you would think they would be a dirty team forever fouling the opposition.

Yet according to Fifa's official figures this is not the case.

Researching this aspect of Northern Ireland's qualifying campaign, which has had two major highs and five low points, provides an incredible insight and delivers fascinating results.

For all the cards dished out to Northern Ireland, O'Neill's side are actually the cleanest of the 53 teams competing throughout the European groups in the World Cup qualifiers.

Records show Michael's men have committed just 46 fouls in their seven games to date (Brunt with nine and Lafferty eight have been the worst offenders). Contrast that to the Republic of Ireland who have committed a whopping 93 fouls which is still way down on Serbia with 120 who top the foul count.

It's interesting to note only Spain are below Northern Ireland, but the World and European champions have played a game less.

It's a staggering statistic given how many times Northern Ireland players have been booked.

At first glance the whole thing doesn't add up. How can you be such a clean team with such a dirty disciplinary record?

Are referees simply being too harsh on the team?

There may be an element of that, but 20 odd times? Unlikely. It appears more a case of Northern Ireland players committing silly and cynical fouls as opposed to those which don't warrant any other punishment bar a free-kick.

Some Northern Ireland players have also been booked for dissent in this campaign. That has to be stamped out going forward.

Another revealing point from this research is that the Northern Ireland players have been fouled less than any other team in the World Cup!

Just 36 fouls, an average of just over five per ame, have been committed against our wee country.

Compare that to other teams in the group: Azerbaijan 96, Portugal 80, Russia 74, Luxembourg 67 and Israel 62. So, in terms of fouls, nobody has stuck the boot into O'Neill's side.

Unfortunately, though, there has been too much yellow peril and red rage for Northern Ireland in this campaign.

Just like the poker school, all those cards from referees must become a thing of the past for us.

Belfast Telegraph

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