They’ve been criticised, lambasted and ridiculed for their inept performances recently in the Euro 2012 qualifiers, but the Northern Ireland players displayed a dramatic show of unity after touching down in wet and windy Pescara yesterday.
The Irish FA, as is a Uefa requirement, scheduled an afternoon media conference ahead of tomorrow night’s match against Italy..
Usually only one member of the squad is required to attend and. on most occasions, it’s not that easy to find a volunteer.
However at 3.15pm local time yesterday, 16 members of Nigel Worthington’s 17-man squad — veteran goalkeeper Maik Taylor was the only one missing — casually walked into the conference room of the team’s beachfront hotel and took a seat.
Cue shocked and bewildered faces from the outnumbered media.
Corry Evans, Ryan McGivern, Lee Hodson, Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart, Jonny Gorman, Steven Davis, Chris Baird, Andrew Little, Warren Feeney, David Healy, Conor McLaughlin, Alan Mannus, Paddy McCourt, Niall McGinn and Oliver Norwood were all in attendance.
Unofficial spokesman Healy, who is set to win his 91st cap tomorrow, insisted this was not an organised mass protest at criticism levelled against them — rather a determined demonstration of solidarity in the Northern Ireland camp.
“Things haven’t gone as we would have liked in the last few games or we haven’t done ourselves justice but we just want everyone to realise that we are united, a team and totally committed,” said a defiant Healy who, along with his team-mates, had to endure a troublesome landing into Pescara Airport yesterday.
“We have quite a few players out but we’ve all stuck together and want to do well for Northern Ireland. That will never change. We’re all bitterly disappointed at not only the result last Friday against Estonia but how the group has developed. We now have one game left to play and we’re going to give it our best shot.”
Unfortunately for Northern Ireland, they will have to go into battle against the fearsome Azzurri on the east coast of Italy with NINE initial squad members missing.
Sammy Clingan (back spasms) and Chris Brunt (ankle) were the latest players to pull out of the squad yesterday morning.
Italy, who cantered to qualification as Group C winners despite being held to a draw at Windsor Park, may field a ‘weakened’ side, however that may create a bigger problem for Nigel Worthington’s men as those players will be desperate to impress boss Cesare Prandelli ahead of next year’s finals in Poland and the Ukraine .
Healy, though, says whatever side boss Worthington is able to put out, Northern Ireland will not sit back and admire the fancy Italians.
“Everybody has written us off, we can’t qualify, they already have — so we’ve got to have a go,” confirms Healy, who was part of an inexperienced Northern Ireland two years ago that lost 3-0 to Italy in a Pisa friendly
“There is absolutely nothing to lose. They’re obviously a strong team and at this stage we don’t know what type of side they’ll put out but we as a group of Northern Ireland players are all looking forward to the challenge.”
While this is Northern Ireland’s final qualifying match of the Euro 2012 campaign, it’s also likely to be Worthington last game as boss after four and half years at the helm.
Worthington’s contract expires on December 31 and, even though IFA chiefs have been more than pleased with his work regarding the under-age teams, football is a results business and therefore he has failed to meet expectations.
The players, though, just like in the conference room of the Hotel Esplanade yesterday, were united in support of their international manager. If they were allowed to decide his fate, the players would all offer Worthington a new two year deal.
“Criticism, when results aren’t going your way, is just part and parcel of football and they always end up blaming the manager,” says striker Feeney.
“We all feel bad about the situation with Nigel because as players we are ones out on the pitch. We all want Nigel to stay on and have the greatest respect for him. But it will not be down to the players — that’s up for the IFA to decide.
“Nigel’s been very dignified in how he’s handled the criticism, especially the disgraceful comments from another manager. That’s a credit to him.”
Worthington, with Kyle Lafferty suspended and Brunt injured, will select Healy and Feeney to lead Northern Ireland’s attack tomorrow.
They proved to a great force during the last Euro qualifiers when Healy became the leading scorer on the continent with 13 goals.
He has never come close to recapturing that goalscoring prowess – indeed he hasn’t found the net for Northern Ireland since October 2008 — but, with scalps over England, Spain, Sweden and Denmark to his name, Healy has targeted the former world champions Italy to end the drought against and add to his collection.