Belfast Telegraph

Estonia v Northern Ireland: Stick with us, Feeney tells Northern Ireland fans

By Steven Beacom

The current Northern Ireland squad isn't the noisiest bunch. In fact compared with the era of Jim Magilton, Iain Dowie, Steve Lomas, Neil Lennon, Gerry Taggart and Tommy Wright they are as quiet as mice.

Nothing wrong with that.

Old-timers will tell you that's the modern day player for you.

On yesterday's trip from Belfast to Tallinn, though, Nigel Worthington's boys appeared even less vociferous than usual.

The reason became apparent in a late afternoon Press conference at the team hotel.

Warren Feeney walked in, smile on his face as always. The 30-year-old is one of the few of today's stars who would have got a word in edgeways in the days of Dowie, Magilton and Taggart.

The Plymouth Argyle striker informed us that he had been appointed as team spokesman by the rest of the players, who were feeling unloved and clearly let down by the criticism which followed Friday's 1-0 defeat to Serbia at Windsor Park, which did major damage to our Euro 2012 qualifying hopes and sent us spiralling to fifth place in Group C.

Electing Feeney was a good strategy. If in trouble, send in the joker of the pack. On this occasion, however, Warren, while never having that big grin far away from his face, wanted to make a few serious points on behalf of his pals, who thought the reaction of some fans and the Press to the loss against the Serbs was over the top.

Agreed, there was no need for a supporter to chuck his shirt at the manager Worthington (pictured yesterday with Niall McGinn) near the end of Friday's game, but the jeers from the Kop were down to the frustration of another shot at qualifying for a major finals slipping away.

As for the criticism in the Northern Ireland media, I felt it was fair and measured. Some of it even constructive.

Sure, Serbia were a superior side to us and have world class players to call upon, but we can't get away from the fact there was an opportunity missed by our national team in front of a packed and passionate Windsor Park.

The coverage reflected that.

The players, though, beg to differ. They are entitled to that opinion and fair play to Feeney for coming into the Press room to address what was a touchy subject.

He said: “The players said Feeno, you go and have a chat with the Press! They think there’s a lot of negativity and criticism in the media so I’m here to lift the mood.

“We were bitterly disappointed on Friday but you’re up against a top 20 team in the world. We're reading the papers today and, while it’s water off a duck’s back for me, it will upset some of the lads.

“It does get talked about — I’ll not lie. It was disappointing because, despite the result, I thought the performance wasn't bad.

“It would be easy to get deflated but we met up after the game and shared our thoughts about it. The expectation levels have risen and that’s how we want it but we say ‘stick with us'.”

In defence of Worthington, Feeney made a plea to the fan who threw his shirt at the manager.

“It’s not something you want to see — fans throwing their shirts on to the pitch. If he wants to come and meet the players and vent his frustrations then he can do so. Fans pay good money and they want good performances but we can’t guarantee anything. I don't think the shirt thing has affected Nigel. He's still joking around with the boys and has a positive attitude. We’ve only suffered three defeats in 14 qualifiers under Nigel. I don’t think the criticism should be heaped on him because, while he picks the team, we cross the white line on to the pitch.''

They'll do that tomorrow night against an Estonia side buoyed by beating Slovenia on Friday. If our players show the fire and commitment of Feeney yesterday, however, they'll have every chance of securing victory and putting themselves right back in the mix for a runners-up spot in Group C and a play-off place.

“Estonia have momentum after beating Slovenia, but we are up for this challenge,” said the impressive Feeney.

“David Healy scored the winner here seven years ago in a friendly and it would be great if we could repeat that.

“We know we have to win now, in these last three games against Estonia home and away and in Italy we have to get as many points on the board.

“If we don’t win on Tuesday we won’t have any realistic chances of qualifying.

“It will be the final nail in our coffin.''

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