Belfast Telegraph

Friday is fright night for Northern Ireland as Euro 2012 qualifying fixtures are announced

By Paul Ferguson

Friday night fever will soon be sweeping Windsor Park. Nigel Worthington revealed his hand at the Euro 2012 Group Three scheduling meeting in Belgrade yesterday and officially brought an end to the traditional Saturday afternoon international.

Northern Ireland will play all their qualifying games for Euro 2012, apart from the Faroe Islands away, under lights and three home matches along with two away fixtures will be on Friday nights.

No games at Windsor will be played on a Saturday with Tuesday and Wednesday the preferred days.

It’s Worthington’s attempt, in accordance with a UEFA ruling, to dramatically shake up the qualifying series and give Northern Ireland the best possible chance of reaching Poland and Ukraine in two years time.

Northern Ireland have performed miserably in recent years at the famous south Belfast venue on a Saturday during daylight hours — losing badly to Poland (2004) and Iceland (2006).

A win over Artur Boruc’s Poles last March is the exception for afternoon games.

In contrast, Northern Ireland have enjoyed magical nights at Windsor defeating European superpowers England, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and World Cup bound Slovenia.

So if Worthington’s men are to overcome world champions Italy, powerful Serbia, dangerous Slovenia, tricky Estonia and the expected whipping boys Faroe Islands, Northern Ireland must play to their strengths.

And Worthington believes performing at a packed Windsor under lights, especially when it’s raining and there’s a swirling wind, will give Northern Ireland an advantage on their home turf.

Compact Windsor Park is an intimidating place for any opposing team — particularly if their players regularly perform in grand Premier League, La Liga or Serie A super stadiums.

The old ground doesn’t do luxury, fans are right on top of the action and the atmosphere is electric due to the tremendous volume of noise generated.

England, Spain, Sweden and Denmark all hated their experiences in Belfast. The Danes were beaten 2-1 at a rain-lashed Windsor but they were defeated before the game even got underway as their coach moaned and groaned and then demanded the game be postponed.

Going back over 25 years, the Germans weren’t big fans of Windsor either.

Former Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham tells the story about walking out at Windsor ahead of the game against West Germany in 1982.

There was driving rain, the horrible wind was coming off Divis Mountain and it was generally a filthy night.

West Germany’s star player Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was slowly walking around the pitch in his designer suit, shoulders low and head bowed.

Bingy raced straight back to the changing room told his players the Germans didn’t fancy it and the win was there for the taking.

Ian Stewart scored a fantastic goal and Northern Ireland recorded a memorable victory.

Worthington will use those memorable results as inspiration as he aims to guide Northern Ireland to their first major finals since the 1986 World Cup.

For Group Three, with only one team qualifying automatically and the second placed team going into a Play-off, is going to be extremely difficult.

Northern Ireland kick off their campaign on a revenge mission in Slovenia on Friday, September 3 but it’s the game against mighty Italy four weeks later at Windsor Park on Friday, October 8 which will be the glamour match for the fans.

Two further away games against Faroe Islands and Serbia follow before Northern Ireland have three matches in a row at Windsor against Slovenia, Faroe Islands and Serbia. Worthington will hope to have gained plenty of momentum going into the home straight.

Northern Ireland head to Tallin at the start of September and then welcome the Estonians to Belfast a month later.

The concluding game, which could be crucial for Northern Ireland qualification hopes, is away to Italy on Tuesday, October 11, 2011.

By that stage, we’ll know whether Worthington’s emphasis on going heavy on home games during the middle of the campaign has paid off.

It will also tell us if Friday night has been alright...

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