Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Keith Gillespie: I was worth a better Northern Ireland ending

Keith Gillespie believes Nigel Worthington brought his international career to an end prematurely
Keith Gillespie believes Nigel Worthington brought his international career to an end prematurely

Keith Gillespie has spoken about the bitterness he feels in relation to the way his international career ended and the part former Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington played in it.

Gillespie loved playing for his country. While others ducked out of away trips to unglamorous locations around the world, the winger was always determined to put on the green shirt.

On one occasion — against Germany at Windsor Park in 2005 — he did so without any club insurance while several team-mates in the same boat decided against it.

Dreaming of reaching 100 caps, the former Manchester United and Newcastle winger ended up stuck on 86 when Worthington decided the then-Glentoran player had nothing more to offer at the highest level.

In his thought provoking autobiography — How Not to be a Football Millionaire — Gillespie writes about his anger towards Worthington, claiming that the Ballymena man, now in charge of York City in League Two, asked him to announce his retirement from the international scene.

“I still feel bitter about how my Northern Ireland career came to an end,” said 38-year-old Gillespie yesterday at the launch of his book.

“The manager was picking Irish League players for international duty, so when I signed for Glentoran in 2009, given the fact that I was experienced and had 86 caps behind me, I thought I still had a chance of being involved in the squad.

“Then he rang me and talked about getting hassle from the press about me not being in the squad and asked me to announce my international retirement. I thought that was a bit of a cop-out.

“When Nigel was asked about me again later on he made a comment that I had had my fling which I thought was harsh. I wouldn't exactly call 86 caps a fling. I was disappointed with his remarks.”

It is ironic that Gillespie ended up having a better relationship with Worthington's predecessor Lawrie Sanchez, who he did not see eye-to-eye with at first.

“We came to sort of respect each other,” says Gillespie, who has played his last game of football in a rollercoaster career due to injury ruling him out of Longford Town's remaining matches this season.

“I have met Lawrie since and talked away to him no problem. He understood my desire to give my best to Northern Ireland and knew if he picked me he was getting 110%

“At first I was a little bit miffed at his tactics and how we were doing things but you have to take your hat off to him because he was successful. He led Northern Ireland through an unbelievable period when we picked up some incredible wins over the likes of England and Spain and I was actually disappointed when he left to manage Fulham.

“Even though things were going well for Northern Ireland and we were in with a chance of qualifying for the 2008 European Championships, I didn't blame him for leaving because the lure of managing in the Premier League was huge.”

Had Sanchez stayed would Northern Ireland have qualified for the finals?

“I don't know the answer to that one. When Nigel came in he omitted Stephen Craigan, a good, honest defender, for the games with Latvia and Iceland and we lost both of those. It was a strange decision but then we drew in Sweden and beat Denmark so it's hard to say if we'd have qualified with Lawrie in charge.

“What I do know is that after Lawrie got us into such a good position, it was hugely disappointing for us to blow it the way we did in Latvia and Iceland,” said Gillespie.

Keith would still love to be flying down the wing at Windsor Park for Northern Ireland. These days, he's limited to watching as a media pundit. He was as frustrated as the fans by last month's embarrassing 3-2 defeat in Luxembourg which followed a tremendous victory over Russia and a battling display in a 4-2 loss at home to Portugal.

Ahead of the final World Cup double header of the campaign in Azerbaijan and Israel, Gillespie said: “The performances against Russia and Portugal were excellent but playing against the so called whipping boys has always been Northern Ireland's Achilles heel.

“We tend to slip up against sides like Luxembourg. They had gone 40-odd years without winning a home World Cup qualifier and then they go and win against us!

“The players know themselves that you can't just expect to turn up and beat these teams. There wasn't the same intensity or the hunger that there had been against Russia and Portugal. Had Northern Ireland played the same way as they did in those games we'd have won 3-0 or 4-0, no doubt about it.

“I do think the current manager Michael O'Neill is doing a decent job though. The performances have mostly been good without getting results. It's difficult managing Northern Ireland. He is building from the bottom and needs time.”

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