Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland faced with striker poser

By Paul Ferguson

Once unthinkable and untouchable, brave Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington manager now has to give plenty of thought before deciding whether to start with record goalscorer David Healy.

Healy, who spent a year without regular first team football at Sunderland before a January loan switch to Ipswich Town, will face an anxious wait today to find out whether he has won his place back for tonight’s match against Albania after being dropped for the friendly defeat to Serbia in November.

Worthington has already selected his new back four, not that he had much choice after Jonny Evans (knee injury) flew home yesterday leaving him with only four recognised defenders.

But the former Northern Ireland left back insisted last night that he was still unsure whether Healy would be reinstated and, if he did play, who would partner him in attack.

With only four strikers to choose from — Healy, Kyle Lafferty, Andy Kirk and Northern Ireland new boy Rory Patterson — it is expected Worthington will go with Healy and Rangers hitman Lafferty.

But the Northern Ireland chief insists it is by no means a formality Healy will start as he argues the 30-year-old, despite that move to Roy Keane’s Ipswich and the fact he scored his first goal in over a year two weeks ago, has a long way to go before he returns to the form which made him a national treasure and hero.

“Who to start up front is something I am still looking at,” admitted Worthington last night.

“I have watched David recently and you can tell he has not played football for a long time on a regular basis.

“It shows the effect it has in physical sharpness and the mental sharpness. That's a fact. The more minutes David can get with Ipswich, Sunderland, wherever he's at, the better for him and the better for us.

“He's got a long way to go. When you have not started for your club side in the league for near on a year that is a hell of a long time.

“When you get five minutes here, 20 minutes there and 60 minutes in a cup game that’s not good enough. Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday — that's where you get your sharpness.

“But it’s not just David. We have a number of players in that situation. That is one of the unfortunate things with our squad at the moment.

“We don't have great numbers to pick and choose from.”

Worthington, though he has a skeleton squad at his disposal believes tonight’s game against Albania, a team ranked 97th in the world but who will give Northern Ireland a stern test, is vital in the preparations for the Euro 2012 qualifiers which will kick-off in September.

Northern Ireland’s major problem has always been securing away victories against so called lesser nations in unfashionable places.

Tonight’s Qemal Stafa Stadium pitch is bumpy and soft due to the heavy rain in his recent days and Northern Ireland’s players will struggle to play any sort of passing game. Worthington says his men must learn to win on these types of pitches and in intimidating surroundings.

“How do we know what the surface is going to be like in Estonia and the Faroe Islands?” fumed Worthington who will also come up against Italy, Serbia and Slovenia. “I don’t care if the weather is windy or wet — it is not as if Northern Ireland isn't used to the wind or the rain. So what’s the difference? Mental attitude away from home, simple as that.

“Our results away from home have been poor. It has been like that for many years. I am leaving no stone unturned to see how we can put it right.”

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