Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Morocco: Pull-outs could be a blessing for Nigel

By Stuart McKinley

Northern Ireland’s injury problems have got so bad that players are even pulling out of press conferences now.

The written media were assured that there would be three members of Nigel Worthington’s squad available for interview yesterday, yet when we got into the room there were only two.

“What happened to Michael O’Connor?” I asked when we’d finished speaking to the two players who were fit to turn up, Chris Brunt and Jonny Tuffey.

I’ll spare you the graphic details, but let’s just say I was informed that the midfielder had taken ill and that there was evidence to prove it.

It looks unlikely now that he’ll be anywhere near Windsor Park tomorrow night when Northern Ireland face Morocco.

He won’t be alone.

Eleven others withdrew before him.

One more and Nigel Worthington will be able to claim a joint record with former manager Sammy McIlroy, who once saw 13 players cry off.

It happens with friendly internationals, yet so far former Norwich City supremo Worthington has been pretty lucky in that by and large the squad he’s named has been the one that’s turned up.

Scotland have lost nine players for their match against the Faroe Islands tonight, a few of England’s big names — John Terry and Ashley Cole among them — will sit out a clash with France and the Republic of Ireland are depleted too.

Nobody is questioning whether or not the injuries that have ruled so many players out of Worthington’s plans are genuine.

Quite a few of them missed their club’s matches at the weekend and most of that crop are expected to be out for another week or two — and in one or two cases possibly longer.

The exception is Grant McCann who, with the blessing of Worthington, will be playing in an FA Cup replay for Peterborough United tonight instead of facing Morocco tomorrow.

There is little doubt, however, that at least a couple of those who will watch tomorrow’s match on television will be in fine fettle when they run out this coming Saturday.

That’s what happens around friendly internationals.

There are two reasons why that doesn’t happen when competitive games come around.

Firstly, the little niggles that crop up from time to time usually aren’t as much of a problem when there are points at stake — and there have been plenty of Northern Ireland players who have put the country first and battled through the pain barrier in the past.

There’s no point risking that tight hamstring or that little ankle knock when there’s nothing at stake and ending up out for the next few weeks.

Then there is the ‘five-day rule’ which, if enforced, bars players from turning out for their clubs on the weekend after an international if they pull out injured.

The FIFA rule is designed to make players and their clubs think twice before giving the thumbs down to an international call-up without genuine reason.

Lawrie Sanchez flagged up the rule at one stage during his reign and suddenly players who’d missed the weekend game were readily available for the second match of that particular double header.

When it comes to friendlies international managers just have to get on with it.

And that’s what Worthington has been doing.

The thing is he’ll probably learn more tomorrow night than if he’d fielded a full strength team and that means if there are withdrawals when the Euro 2010 qualifiers kick-off again in March he’ll be more well informed as to how any replacements are likely to perform when they are playing for real.

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