Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Don't write the Latvians off: Johnson

Bristol City manager Gary Johnson says Northern Ireland's European dream can come true tonight - and he is in the perfect position to judge.

For the Robins' boss is the former head coach of the Latvian national team and is widely regarded as the reason behind the Baltic nation's rise in fortunes in recent years.

Johnson returned to England in 2001 after a two-year spell in Latvia, but left behind a legacy that eventually saw the former minnows qualify for the last European Championships, held in Portugal.

If Northern Ireland are to qualify, Latvia have to beat Sweden and then there is the small matter of Nigel Worthington's men beating Spain.

While Johnson recognises that it is a big ask, he cites Saturday's amazing results, which saw Israel beat Russia and Macedonia defeat Croatia - meaning England need just a draw against the Croats tonight to qualify - as one of the main reasons why Northern Ireland fans can dare to dream.

" We are basically looking for two second favourites to upset the odds and both Latvia and Northern Ireland are up against it," said Johnson, who still offers his services as an unofficial consultant to the Latvian Football Federation.

"I have been in football long enough to know that anything can happen.

"Just look at Israel and Macedonia the other night. No-one expected them to win and look how that turned out.

"Latvia have beaten Sweden in the past and they will go there without fear.

"Before I became manager there they went out and rarely got beyond the halfway line.

"That was one of the first things that I changed and I think you can see that now. They will go out for the win and you can't write them off.

" They have got matchwinners in their team - the vast majority of them were there when I was manager and I take pride in how far they have come on.

"Maris Verpakovskis is their man to watch - he is a matchwinner and he's not the only one.

"I have spoken to the general secretary of the Latvian Football Federation over the last couple of days and they are confident they can cause a shock.

"I hope for them and Northern Ireland that they get the win."

Johnson also has another reason to hope for a Latvian victory - and that of course Northern Ireland beat Spain - Ivan Sproule.

Johnson signed the winger, who is expected to take the suspended Keith Gillespie's place tonight in Las Palmas, from Hibernian in the summer and believes he along with David Healy can take the Green and White Army to glory.

"Ivan is a matchwinner too," he added. "I'd love it if Northern Ireland qualified because it would be great for Bristol City.

"Ivan has a lot of pride in playing for his country and when he comes back he's buzzing.

"He can be a big player. If he puts in some of the performances that he has done for us this year or has one of those nights like when he scored a hat-trick for Hibernian against Rangers then it could be a great night for Northern Ireland.

"I think they can do it and I really hope they do."

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