Apprehensive Nigel Worthington last night admitted Sammy Clingan’s withdrawal from the Northern Ireland camp ahead of tonight's must-win World Cup qualifier in San Marino was a “massive disappointment”.
The instrumental central midfielder was forced to fly back to Norwich after he failed to recover from a thigh strain.
Worthington could also be without striker Warren Feeney (virus) and Doncaster Rovers’ new recruit Dean Shiels (ankle) for the match at Serravalle’s Stadio Olympico.
But it is Clingan’s absence which is causing Worthington the most concern and has given him a selection headache.
Birmingham’s Damien Johnson would usually be considered the ideal replacement but with only four and half reserve games under his belt, after recovering from a horrendous back injury, Worthington must decide whether the 30-year-old is up the task of playing in the centre of midfield at international level or should he opt to play Johnson on the right flank, a less taxing position, with Scunthorpe’s Grant McCann coming in alongside Steven Davis.
On the left wing, Worthington is seriously considering playing Rangers hitman Kyle Lafferty in place of West Brom’s Chris Brunt allowing him a three-pronged attack at times along with David Healy and Martin Paterson.
“It’s a massive disappointment that I’ve had to send Sammy back,” said Worthington from Northern Ireland’s base in the seaside resort of Riccione near the San Marino border.
“He’s an integral part of our side but he sat out our training on Monday and was having treatment on a thigh strain. He trained for a period yesterday morning but then had to step out so unfortunately he’s on the first available flight back to Norwich.
“We have two big games coming up at the end of March, start of April so we want to make sure he is 100 per cent fit for that game.
“Warren Feeney has been ill for the last 36 hours so he hasn’t done a lot with regard to training. But he seems to be coming round, which is good, and we’ll assess him closer to the game.
“Dean Shiels tweaked his ankle in training and it’s quite tender at the moment. It’s not looking good for him. We’ll monitor him as we go along but I would say it would be highly unlikely he will participate in the match.
“George McCartney, having sat out Monday, is fine and will be fit to play while having spoken to Damien and also the physios at Birmingham, I know what stage he is at. He’s topped up on his cardiovascular work – is a good pro and has done things right. Therefore, he is definitely in the frame.
“But I haven’t made a decision on my final team – there are too many things that I have to take into account before finalising the 11 players I want to take on San Marino.”
It’s not all doom and gloom though in the Northern Ireland camp.
Record goalscorer David Healy is in terrific form in training and Worthington is excited about unleashing red-hot Martin Paterson on little San Marino.
“Martin has been monitored very closely and I have been very impressed with his progress and performances,” said Worthington.
“He’s scored 18 goals already this season and that is a terrific accomplishment. But what I really like about him is his work rate. It’s phenomenal and he really gives his all for the team. He’s been playing the majority of the season as Burnley’s lone striker, that is difficult enough but to score as many goals as he has done is fantastic. He’s been immense and I think is the perfect player for Northern Ireland.
“We’re all about work-rate, rolling your sleeves up and having a go.”