They had been cast as lambs to the slaughter
Sent into the Colosseum, the Arena Garibaldi, a crumbling old stadium in Pisa that was probably around at the time of Caesar, Northern Ireland’s young guns, with an average age of just 22, were forced into fighting the fierce Italian gladiators.
In return for this contest was the promise of £200,000 in silver.
Irish FA chiefs, despite the lack of senior internationals available, rubbed their hands with glee at the lucrative offer and accepted the duel.
Not surprisingly, the Italian combatants, rulers of the world due to their 2006 success in Germany, emerged victorious after goals from Giuseppe Rossi, Pasquale Foggia and Sergio Pellissier.
But Northern Ireland’s brave boys, eight of them making their senior international debuts, battled as if their lives depended on it. Thankfully, too much damage was not inflicted; they will recover from their wounds.
Irish League stars and those without any first team experience at their clubs in England were matched against Serie A and La Liga greats.
Crusaders captain Colin Coates started alongside Chris Casement, who is currently without a club after being released by Ipswich, at the heart of Nigel Worthington’s defence.
Coleraine’s 28-year-old winger Stephen Carson played on the left flank while Manchester United reserve team player Corry Evans, brother of Jonny, played in the middle of a five-man midfield.
Italy did give debuts to six players but it is worth bearing in mind the clubs they come from are Inter Milan, Cagliari, Udinese, Catania, Siena and Chievo compared to Crusaders, Linfield, Manchester United Reserves, Newcastle United Reserves and Port Vale.
It should have been a complete mismatch.
And while the Italians were always in control, and their skills at times were breathtaking, Northern Ireland’s youngsters along with the senior pros, captain Damien Johnson, David Healy and Grant McCann, coped fairly well with the pressure.
Even, the three goals could have been avoided.
Villarreal’s Rossi opened the scoring after 20 minutes when he sent a thunderous drive past Partick’s Jonny Tuffey. Had Northern Ireland not given the ball away cheaply in midfield and then backed off from Rossi as he ran across the line, the deadlock may not have been broken.
For Italy’s second, from substitute Foggia on 53 minutes, Coates and Casement were beaten all ends up and then twisted and turned by the brilliant Lazio forward before he deftly chipped Tuffey. Brilliant bit of skill from the 25-year-old but the central defenders will be disappointed their challenges failed to thwart the danger.
The third and final goal of the night was a brilliant acrobatic effort from Chievo hitman Pellissier. It was an excellent finish, however if the marking had been tight in the box, the 30-year-old would never have found the space to work his magic.
This, though, was a learning curve for the boys and they can only improve after playing in a match of this stature.
And that’s why these comments are certainly not criticisms because, in the cold light of day, to go down only 3-0 against a quality Italy side who were all out to gain a place on the Confederations Cup squad was quite an achievement. Even our usual senior team, at full strength, would have done exceedingly well to come away with a positive result against this Azzuri outfit.
It wasn’t by any means one- way traffic. Northern Ireland, while limited, did have opportunities to score. In the first half before he was taken off with a groin strain Healy fired his shot wide of the target, after great work from Carson down the left.
Rangers’ Andy Little, who moved up to the centre forward position after Healy’s departure, had a shot early in the second half while McCann will be annoyed he didn’t get one of his free kicks from around the penalty box on target.
Northern Ireland, on an incredibly humid evening and with the Leaning Tower overlooking the stadium, gave it their all and wore the green shirt with pride in front of only 8,200 supporters, including around 80 Green and White Army members.
Birmingham City’s Johnson was immense at right back, looking so calm and composed — adding the much needed experience to Coates and Casement. Ryan McGivern, only 19, continues to improve with every game. Evans was assured in midfield while McCann and Michael O’Connor covered a great deal of ground.
On the flanks, Little and especially Carson showed they can be a threat and Healy, before he had to go off, did his utmost for the team, dropping deep to help his defence but was largely forced to live off scraps.
In goals, the future looks promising as Tuffey, who started, and then second half substitute Alan Mannus both made fine saves.
Tuffey, after bringing down Gianpao Pazzini in the box, made a brilliant save from the resulting spot kick pushing Pazzini’s effort onto the post. Towards the end of the first half he also saved well from Mascara and then using his feet to block an effort denied Montolivo.
Mannus came out on top in a one-on-one with Pellissier and
also expertly pushed shots and headers over the bar as the Italians attempted to increase their lead.
In the second half, Worthington gave a run out and debuts to Linfield’s Robert Garrett, Port Vale’s James Lawrie, Newcastle’s Shane Ferguson and Crusaders ace Martin Donnelly as the boys who started the game tired.
The only player who didn’t enter the fray was 17-year-old Shane Duffy — this was simply because it was agreed each team would use only six subs each. His time will come.
Nigel Worthington can now go away on his summer holiday, relax and enjoy before returning to prepare for crucial World Cup qualifiers in September against Poland and Slovakia.
After Saturday night’s result in Bratislava – Slovakia hammered San Marino 7-0 — Northern Ireland are no longer top of Group Three.
This though shouldn’t spoil Worthington’s break too much, for he is now safe in the knowledge that, should he need them, he has plenty of good, young talent to call upon as reinforcements.
Our young warriors, battered and bruised, will live to fight another day
Italy: Marchetti, Santon, Grosso (Foggia 45), Gamberini, Legrottaglie, Gattuso (capt) (Palombo 45), D’Agostino (Galloppa 75), Mascara (Brighi 45), Montolivo (Dossena 45), Pazzini (Pellissier 62), G Rossi. Subs: De Sanctis, Cassani, Esposito, Biagianti.
Northern Ireland: Tuffey (Mannus 62), Johnson (capt), McGivern, Casement, Coates, Little (Donnelly 83) , O’Connor (Garrett 62), Evans (Ferguson 78), McCann, Carson (Lawrie 70), Healy (McGinn 44). Sub: Duffy.
Referee: Kevin Blom (Holland)