Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

In Pictures: Northern Ireland 0 Serbia 1

When everyone is safe and secure in their seats the performance entitled ‘After the Lord Mayor's Show' will begin.

Perhaps it's the relentless bite of the recession or the onset of winter with its freezing temperatures but we could do with something to lift the gloom.

This international friendly was never going to warm the cockles of a heart still broken from a failure to make it to another major tournament.

How many more hard luck stories are we going to have to endure? Probably a few, though on occasions like Saturday night we are peering through the darkness hoping to catch a glittering decoration on a Christmas tree which has seen better days.

Serbia are going to the World Cup while Northern Ireland aren't. Happy New Year to them.

Every country needs its heroes and idols, sporting stars who will fuel young dreams.

Serbia will be looking to do that this summer in South Africa. We can only follow their fortunes with envious eyes, longing for a return to the big time.

An interesting quote from Ryan Giggs recently underlines how he shares the pain of Northern Ireland fans.

Expressing a desire to manage his country, Wales, he said: “We should be making sure long-term that Wales get to a major championship.

“That would have a massive effect on kids coming through. If they're torn whether to chose rugby or football, which is a big issue in Wales, and they watch a European Championship or World Cup with their national team in, they might just concentrate on football.”

If Northern Ireland players had made it to South Africa this summer they could have helped create a new generation of talent that wasn't afraid to go for glory.

Some of us are fortunate to have cherished memories of Mexico '86, Spain '82 or even Sweden '58.

But Wales haven't qualified for a major tournament since that World Cup in 1958 as nations like Slovakia and Slovenia appear hungrier to come to the party.

Serbia pipped France by a point to win Group Seven and secure automatic qualification.

The visitors could experiment knowing they would be playing in front of an audience of millions in the summer.

For much of this game they were the better side, ensuring that virtually all of the 7,693 souls, who were willing to support the Irish FA in times of great financial uncertainty, went home disappointed.

Northern Ireland have found a new attacking sensation in Celtic winger Niall McGinn (right), though he remains a rough diamond awaiting more polish.

Worthington will be delighted with his new wing wizard and whisper it quietly but there is now fierce competition for places in that midfield area.

McGinn's magic was the biggest plus from the night though Maik Taylor ran him close for the man of the match award.

Taylor may have lost his place between the sticks at Birmingham City but he remains the hugely reliable last line of defence for Northern Ireland.

Serbia were menacing on the counter-attack with Manchester United's Zoran a huge threat but for most of the game, the green line held firm.

Taylor tipped a shot from Zdravko Kuzmanovic over the woodwork in the ninth minute as the visitors started brightly.

But Northern Ireland weathered that early storm and McGinn stung goalkeeper Bojan Isailovic's hands with a powerful drive.

Taylor was also at his best in the 27th minute to foil Tosic but at the other end Chris Baird's header from a Chris Brunt corner went narrowly wide.

McGinn often led the Serbia defence a merry dance and on 49 minutes he set up Brunt who screwed his shot wide of the post from close range.

But it was the visitors who produced the game's most memorable piece of invention to seal the win on 57 minutes.

Gojko Kacar allowed a cross from Tosic to run past him and Danko Lazovic slotted the ball past Taylor.

Stephen Craigan's header was kept out by Isailovic and Grant McCann came close with a long range free-kick but the equaliser failed to arrrive.

Michael O'Connor, goalkeeper Jonathan Tuffey, Paddy McCourt and Andy Kirk also came to the party and their time in the spotlight should send them back to their clubs with a spring in their step and a firm resolve to keep progressing.

As well as McGinn's growing confidence on the international stage, the other big talking point was David Healy's exclusion from the starting line-up — the Sunderland man replaced Warren Feeney on 66 minutes.

In short, Healy remains Northern Ireland's best finisher though he himself will concede that no-one has a divine right to start every game for his country.

Any player who is either out of form or struggling for fitness is going to see the axe hovering over him at some point

That applies to anyone who has ever played the game.

The key question now is can Worthington, assuming he agrees a new deal, guide these players to a major tournament?

Northern Ireland can't be haunted by past failures though lessons must be learned.

At least the crop of 2009 are showing hunger, desire and the fighting spirit needed to bring down the world's best.

Worthington's boys have shot up the FIFA rankings and the solitary withdrawal of the injured Gareth McAuley from the squad for this game underlined the sense of togetherness needed in order to succeed at international level.

But while the rankings make pretty reading, other stats, or rather accounts, will have IFA chiefs reaching for a stiff drink.

Former chief executive Howard Wells pocketed a six-figure sum after an out-of-court settlement of his unfair dismissal case.

And the IFA could lose significant funding from Sky Television if home internationals are switched to free-to-air television.

Meanwhile, there is the small matter of Windsor Park and the international contract with Linfield to resolve.

Now that the three major sports have booted a shared future into touch, football stands at a crossroads and it's going nowhere.

When is someone going to come down to Windsor with a tin of paint and get on with the job?

While he's at it, he can create a new car parking space for me that I won't have to vacate to accommodate a fire engine for health and safety reasons.

England players, for well documented reasons, aren't fond of Windsor but spare me Fabio Capello and other senior figures moaning about their diminishing pool of talent.

Would they rather have our pool of talent or training facilities?

So what do we want to see happen in the coming few months?

Nigel Worthington finding his pen and signing that contract, the IFA and Linfield agreeing a new deal for internationals at Windsor and then work beginning on the ground to finally create a more modern arena.

We also want our international players to start playing for their clubs and a European Championship draw in February that doesn't give us sleepless nights.

On the subject of sleepless nights, we can only hope a generous soul in the IFA wins the National Lottery.

They say money can't buy you success in football but Windsor and the IFA could certainly do with some.

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