Belfast Telegraph

How Nigel Worthington can emulate brilliant Billy Bingham

By Steven Beacom

The last time Northern Ireland played in the finals of a major championship was in 1986.

Two of them came in the World Cup in Mexico.

The manager then? The great Billy Bingham, who took our wee country to successive World Cups in the 80s.

And this after playing under the iconic Peter Doherty for Northern Ireland the only other time our boys qualified for a major championships — the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, when a young Brazilian called Pele exploded on to the scene.

Bingham is a big supporter of Worthington.

Ask Billy about the man who played at left-back for him for years and he’ll praise his abilities as a player and boss.

Since Bingham five other Northern Ireland managers have come and four have gone.

There’s been Bryan Hamilton (1994-1998), Lawrie McMenemy (1998-1999), Sammy McIlroy (2000-2003), Lawrie Sanchez (2004-2007) and Worthington (2007 - present).

They have enjoyed varying degrees of success and failure.

Following Bingham’s long list of achievements, which included two British Championship successes, was always going to be a tough challenge.

Hamilton, while enjoying some splendid results early on, especially away from home, never lived up to the Bingham mantle.

Suggestions of a lack of respect from players undermined him and combined with some shocking defeats, he was unceremoniously sacked by the IFA.

When the end came Hamilton was honest enough to admit he was shattered, feeling he still had much to offer.

Unfortunately, despite arriving with a mighty fanfare, Hamilton’s successor Lawrie McMenemy had little to offer.

The only positive point about Lawrie’s reign was that it was mercifully short, though I’ll admit his press conferences on occasion could be hilarious.

His last in Finland was a no-holds barred, off the record rant on certain Northern Ireland players.

About one rather colourful character, Lawrie stated: “I wouldn’t p*** on him if he was on fire.”

In came Sammy McIlroy, who got on with all of the players. Hugely popular when he played in midfield in the 80s, everyone wanted to see Sammy deliver.

Initially he did, thanks to the emergence of a young David Healy, but it all went sadly wrong when the team failed to find the net for 1298 minutes!

As I remarked at the time there were young kids growing up thinking they lived in a place called Northern Ireland nil.

Sammy Mac departed in 2003 and Sanchez took over in 2004. Put it like this, he wasn’t here to be liked by players or press, but the fans loved him because with the inspiration of Healy, he masterminded famous victories over England, Spain and Sweden.

What he didn’t do is what he said he would — honour his contract, leaving for Fulham with Northern Ireland top of their Euro 2008 group and looking good for a shot at the finals.

Worthington replaced him and couldn’t see the job through.

A few years on though the Ballymena man has put Northern Ireland in prime position to strike for runners-up spot in Group C of the 2012 European Championship qualifying campaign, which would earn a play-off place.

He’s had his troubles as boss and severe criticism. Some fans were calling for his head as recently as May. To his credit though he took it on the chin and regrouped. So much so that key figures in the IFA want to offer him a new deal.

I was impressed with his comments and how he prepared his team ahead of last month’s potential banana skin fixture with the Faroes, which was won 4-0.

He’s also shown some class in how he has dealt publicly with the thorny issue of players defecting to the Republic.

Ahead of Friday night’s match with Serbia at Windsor — one of the biggest in his career — Nigel might just be about to come into his own as Northern Ireland manager.

There’ll only ever be one Billy Bingham, but if Worthington takes us to a major finals, given that it is so much harder for small nations to qualify for tournaments these days, he'll rank up there with his magnificent mentor.

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