Ahead of Northern Ireland's first trip to Dublin for 12 years, where they play Scotland tomorrow in the Carling Nations Cup, Steven Beacom talked to Gary McAllister, spokesman for the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs, and Gary Wallace, a member of the NI Newtownabbey Supporters club and veteran of several trips to the fair city, about the game and the year ahead
High expectations: Northern Ireland supporters are looking for big things from David Healy (left), |manager Nigel Worthington (top) and Steve Davis (above) in the coming year SB: So, what about going to Dublin for the Scotland match?
GM: There is a lot of interest in it because it is our first match in this new tournament. It's also the first time we have played in Dublin since 1999 so there is a novelty factor. The fact that it's against another home nation also interests people. I do know there are some people who aren't going along because they want to make a stand about the whole player eligibility issue and we have to respect people's views but the fact we are taking about 5,000 fans shows a lot of enthusiasm for the game and the tournament.
SB: What about you Gary Wallace, you've been down in Dublin for matches before?
GW: Yes, I've been there at every match. Apart from the first match in 1978 there's never been any trouble and hopefully that will be the case this time.
SB: What's the atmosphere like in Dublin when Northern Ireland come to town?
GW: The first match was very good because there were probably more Northern Ireland fans there than the Republic fans because at that time they weren't that interested in football.
SB: Are you worried about there being trouble?
GW: The only trouble I can remember is actually getting a lot of verbals from people who were from here supporting the Republic. I don't expect any trouble this time.
GM: We have built up a good reputation as fans and we always encourage people to behave themselves. The message we try to preach is that you have to remember you are an ambassador for your country, both at home and abroad. It should also be noted that if there is any trouble, and hopefully that won't be the case, it may not necessarily come from Northern Ireland fans. I'm not aware of anyone going down to Dublin other than for a good day out, to watch a good football match and see Northern Ireland win.
SB: What about our European Championship qualifying campaign, which will start again in March in Serbia with no home fans?
GM: The next two qualifiers are hugely important. The game in Belgrade against Serbia has become an episode in itself. If we can take points from that match and then do the same in the home game against Slovenia a few days later it keeps us in the running. We need to get at least three points from those two games.
SB: Do you think that the 1-1 draw in Faroe Islands back in October will damage the campaign in the long run?
GW: It could well do. It was typical Northern Ireland. Do well against the big teams and blow it against the minnows. Speaking to the Faroe Islands boss Brian Kerr after that match though he is convinced he'll take points off other teams. I think Italy will win the group but second place is wide open. Talking to people in Serbia, I think they have lost all interest in the tournament with what happened in Italy (the match was abandoned due to rioting Serbian fans and later a 3-0 win was awarded to Italy with Serbia having to play their next home game against Northern Ireland behind closed doors) so I believe we can pick points up there. I think it's between us and Slovenia for second spot.
SB: What Northern Ireland players are you looking forward to seeing this year?
GW: I'm looking forward to seeing if Liam Boyce gets a game against Scotland. It will also be interesting to see if he is stuck on against the Republic because there has been talk they are interested in him. He must be doing well at Werder Bremen to get called up. He always impressed me when he played for Cliftonville.
GM: I think you always like to see young players coming through. As Gary says Liam Boyce is in that category. As far as I am aware he has pledged his future to Northern Ireland and it will be nice to see him on the pitch. In the previous friendly against Morocco I thought Paddy McCourt did very well. He is an exciting player with lots of potential. It's good to see players who bring something new and different.
SB: What's your thoughts on David Healy's move to Rangers and how it will impact on Northern Ireland?
GM: I think it's very important he gets more time on the pitch. It has been a difficult situation for Nigel Worthington and he's managed it pretty well. He didn't want to be seen to be disloyal to the player who has given so much to Northern Ireland, but at the same time he needs players playing first team football. The fact that he scored goals for Doncaster on loan and now that he has got the move to Rangers and should play more games and score goals bodes well for Northern Ireland.
GW: I've known David since he started playing and I know his father Clifford will be delighted since he is always going over to see Rangers. It's a good move for David and for Northern Ireland . He'll also play more with Kyle Lafferty which will help their partnership.
SB: What's your thoughts on the manager Nigel Worthington and how he has done?
GW: Nigel came in at a difficult time, because no one was going to repeat what Lawrie Sanchez did. I think the first two away games he took charge for against Latvia and Iceland he made a mistake with the team selection. If he had stuck with the team that had been playing we could have been at the European Championship finals but other than that I think he has done pretty well. He can be a bit negative but he's brought young players into the squad which I'm pleased about.
GM: He has done a fair job. It was always going to be difficult following Lawrie Sanchez because he achieved some of the biggest results in our history, just like it was difficult for Bryan Hamilton following Billy Bingham. Hamilton got a lot of stick even though in one campaign he was in charge when we were the only team in Europe unbeaten away from home. Under Nigel our home form has continued to be good and a lot of people appreciate the work he does at various age levels to help bring players through, which hasn't always happened with previous managers. I think that's the thing that has impressed me most. He's not just concerned with the senior team, he sees the bigger picture and that will help managers who come after him.
SB: Who will be the key players for Northern Ireland this year?
GM: Steve Davis will be very important to us and I think Kyle Lafferty could have a big influence too. In away games against Poland and Sweden in the last few campaigns he scored goals and played very well. If he could reach those levels consistently he will be a crucial player for us.
GW: I'd go for Steve Davis too. If he plays well, Northern Ireland tend to play well. Lafferty too will be vital this year.
SB: We now have a lot of quality central defenders. What is your ideal pairing?
GM: Aaron Hughes has to be in there. If you were picking the best Northern Ireland team of the last 20 years he would have to be in it because he's been so reliable. As for his partner, Stephen Craigan is very solid and he and Aaron Hughes play well together. There is also Jonny Evans, but if a partnership like Hughes and Craigan works you should stick with it, but it's not a bad situation for us to have choices.
GW: Gareth McAuley is another one to consider and also Craig Cathcart who has done well at Blackpool. I would stick with Craigan, because we all know what happened when we left him out in those games against Latvia and Iceland. He's not flashy but he does a good job beside Hughes.
SB: So, name your Northern Ireland team to start the big games this year?
GW: Taylor, McAuley, Hughes, Craigan, Evans, McGinn, Davis, Clingan, Brunt, McCourt in behind Lafferty.
GM: Taylor, McAuley, Craigan, Hughes, McCartney, McGinn, Davis, Baird, Brunt, Lafferty, Healy.