Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

Northern Ireland boss Nige sings right tune

Picture the scene, if you will. A post-match press conference room, photographers with the fingers at the ready to snap pictures and the assembled media ready to hear the words of wisdom from Northern Ireland boss Nigel Worthington.

Serbia manager Raddy Antic, one of Europe’s most respected coaches, had just left after talking about his side’s “fortunate” 1-0 win at Windsor Park and the new, bright young hope for the boys in green, Niall McGinn.

All we needed now was Worthington.

Why did you drop David Healy? Why did it take so long when he wasn’t playing or scoring for his club? Are you going to sign that new contract or not? Is Niall McGinn the man to fill Keith Gillespie’s boots?

Those were just some of the questions the press had in store for Worthington but he had been delayed.

The mood in the Bass Lounge at Windsor Park was jovial.

After all, losing narrowly to Serbia was no disgrace. They had qualified for next summer’s World Cup in South Africa. All we needed now was the manager to complete the story of the day.

Then, a flash of grey appeared at the door. The colour of the hair was familiar but the face was not.

Slowly, but surely, men and women trickled into the press conference room and took a seat.

Where were their scarves? Where were the green shirts?

Well, that question was soon answered as they, in turn, proceeded to ask each other why the room was so busy. Before we had a chance to enlighten them as to our presence, another flash of grey, well, more glittery silver, appeared at the door.

In walked two men in cowboy shirts holding guitars. Neither was Nigel.

Puzzled looks were exchanged as well as a few chuckles by all the media. By this stage, none of us had a clue what we were doing in that room.

When the international boss finally appeared, some of those confused expressions remained for those expecting a music extravaganza rather than a football manager.

Okay, not everyone will know who Nigel Worthington is but at Windsor Park on an international match night, it was a little strange. After the amusement and confusion the press confernece took place without much of a fuss.

As the media left, the baffled punters came back in to enjoy their night of entertainment.

The last thing they had expected, or wanted, was their evening hijacked by football.

But this was no ordinary Saturday evening international as some fans decided to stay away.

A half-empty Windsor Park during the game? You must be joking.

Ever since the boys in green started punching above their weight, tickets for internationals have become like gold dust.

World Cup qualifiers are always sure to bring out the crowds and the famous atmosphere has undoubtedly become the ‘12th man’.

But when it comes to friendlies, this isn’t always the case.

And who can really blame the fans? If we’re all being honest, some of the players strutting their stuff on the pitch didn’t look particularly bothered either in what was a glorified money-spinner for the Irish FA. Avoiding injury was always going to be more important than putting on a show.

To their credit, however, they did provide entertaiment and did pretty much everything except score to secure a draw, or even a win. But Saturday’s 1-0 defeat though was more about revenue for the IFA than experimentation for Nigel Worthington.

The cash-strapped governing body, who forked out a figure in the region of £500,000 on former chief executive Howard Wells’ out-of-court settlement for unfair dismissal, are mixing it with the best on the pitch these days and the plan is to do it off the pitch, too.

Chartered flights are the way forward for the powers that be, oh and the squad.

None of those annoying schedueled flights these days for the powers-that-be at Windsor Avenue.

Giving players the best possible preparation is a good thing, though, and if it helps Northern Ireland qualify for a major tournament then bring on even more friendlies. But empty seats, a regular occurrence in years gone by, aren’t something we’re used to seeing on an international night.

Maybe that’s why the original idea was to play away from home and that might be the case next time with the possibility of a trip to face Chile in March.

The Green and White Army, on the whole, are a loyal bunch.

They travel the world to support their heroes but this time many opted against a home game, pressumably because it was meaningless.

And for the majority of Northern Ireland fans, that’s exactly what Saturday was — entertaining or not.

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