Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Nigel already a history maker

When Nigel Worthington walks along the Windsor Park perimeter track tomorrow to the dugout before the European Championship qualifier against Liechtenstein pride and passion will grip him.

No-one has revealed greater loyalty to their country than the soft-spoken 46-year-old Ballymena man from that magical moment when he first pulled on the green jersey with the Irish FA crest.

The date Tuesday, May 22 1984 when Northern Ireland met Wales in the British championship watched by a mere 8,000 at the Vetch Field, Swansea where 20 years earlier Pat Jennings and George Best also made their debuts.

It proved to be a game of great significance. Worthington, then with Sheffield Wednesday had been drafted in for the unavailable Jimmy Nicholl (Rangers) with Mal Donaghy (Luton) switched from left to right back. Worthington, eventually capped 66 times, made the position his own.

He recalls: "Wearing that shirt and standing in the line-up before take-off was the ultimate for me. My mission had been achieved.

"To be part of a squad with great names like Jennings, O'Neill, McIlroy, Hamilton and Whiteside was a dream.

"Never did I think for a moment that one day I'd be managing my country. All I wanted was to establish my career at club and international level. How the wheel has turned."

Just before half-time Jennings gashed his face diving at Ian Rush's feet and with the World Cup qualifier against Finland five days later Billy Bingham replaced him at half-time with stand-in Jim Platt.

Disaster struck Northern Ireland in the 57th minute when Mark Hughes hammered the ball into the net. Offside protests were rejected by the referee. Then, with 16 minutes remaining Worthington was to play a vital role in the equalising goal - a goal to make history.

Martin O'Neill (Notts County) played a one-two with Worthington then found Norman Whiteside (Manchester United) on the right wing. His lob into the goalmouth looked tantalising. Up jumped Gerry Armstrong (Real Mallorca) and Billy Hamilton (Burnley) with Armstrong getting his head to it.

A win by Scotland and England at Hampden Park on the following Saturday meant either would be champions while a draw gave Northern Ireland the trophy on goal difference. It was a fascinating finale for a series dying on its feet.

Northern Ireland's squad immediately left for Finland. Everyone that Saturday afternoon sat round the hotel bar listening to a crackling radio commentary from Hampden where it ended in a 1-1 draw. The trophy was theirs and it has remained in Belfast ever since after the abandonment of the tournament.

The champagne flowed, the atmosphere was one of immense celebration but 24 hours later came the cold douche when, against all the odds Northern Ireland were beaten 1-0 by Finland in the first of the 1986 World Cup qualifiers.

With Nicholl who had moved to the Toronto Blizzards returning Worthington didn't play in that match. The glory had been replaced by gloom. They were British champions yet prospects of reaching the Mexico 1986 World Cup finals appeared over before they had begun.

Yet it didn't eventually turn out that way and Worthington found himself a member of the squad in Guadalajara - an honour which he cherishes to this day.

From the moment he accepted the Northern Ireland international job Worthington has revealed commitment and dedication and, even more important, earned the respect of his players who realise he has been there and done it all.

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