Northern Ireland v Morocco: There’s no substitute for experience
‘I’m just over the moon it’s not a qualifier.’
Those were the words of Nigel Worthington when Gareth McAuley and Warren Feeney joined the missing list for Northern Ireland’s friendly against Morocco on Wednesday evening.
Aren’t we all Nigel? Aren’t we all?
If they’d been the only two players to pull out of the squad, it wouldn’t have been too bad but there were five before them and four more added their names yesterday, leaving Worthington without what would be a pretty strong starting 11.
Now he probably doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry after Kyle Lafferty, Steven Davis, Stephen Craigan and George McCartney were rendered unavailable.
Any plans that Worthington had drawn up in advance have long since been scrunched up and dispatched to the bin — and we all know that Plan B wasn’t exactly quick at being put into operation against the Faroe Islands last month.
The 11 men who will miss the game — 12 if you count David Healy who didn’t get an emergency call despite the withdrawals and another goal for Doncaster Rovers at the weekend — would make a stronger team than those who are left.
That’s not even a debatable point as eight players who tackled the Faroes last month won’t face Morocco.
That leaves only Aaron Hughes, Jonny Evans and Niall McGinn. The rest will have to wait for an opportunity to redeem themselves.
The squad that is left boasts only two international goals between them. That’s something of a concern surely.
Worthington, however, will focus on the positives and he won’t have to search too far to find them.
For a start there’s Jonny Tuffey. Maik Taylor’s 39 now, is probably playing in his last campaign and, while Worthington is hoping that Nottingham Forest’s Lee Camp will get the green light to represent Northern Ireland, it’s not yet past the post — although there’s nothing to suggest the former England under-21 cap won’t be cleared.
Tuffey didn’t let himself down against Italy last year — his penalty save grabbed the attention more than any of the three goals he let in — and a solid performance against Morocco would keep him at the forefront of Worthington’s thinking.
The withdrawal of Craigan means that Jonny Evans will get the rare chance to play at centre-half for Northern Ireland, something which hasn’t happened too often for the Manchester United man.
He’s been excellent at left-back since keeping Fernando Torres out of the game on his debut against Spain — strangely the Liverpool striker played on the right wing that night.
Against the Faroes, when the full-backs were needed more in the opposition half, it was clear to see that Evans was playing out of position.
Elsewhere at the back it’s a great opportunity for Worthington to hand Lee Hodson a senior debut.
The teenage Watford full-back has been under consideration since this time last year. Preference was given to Steve Beaglehole’s under-21 and under-19 games instead of bringing Hodson in for the friendly against Serbia last year or the summer trip to the USA and Chile.
He’s been more or less a regular at Vicarage Road for well over a season now and, now that he’s in, there’s a big chance for him to stay.
There would also appear to be a chance for Paddy McCourt to be handed a start but, with Worthington’s reluctance to take what he considers a risk by throwing him in previously, that’s far from guaranteed.
More likely is a lengthy run for Adam Barton, brought in after taking cold feet over a call-up for the Italy and Faroes European qualifiers.
Worthington is desperate for the Blackburn-born Preston North End teenager to feel wanted, with qualification for England delaying his commitment to Northern Ireland.
There’s no better way to achieve that than handing him a place in the starting line-up and, with reported interest from Liverpool, he’s worth a shout.
It might just be the final push that he needs to commit to the green shirt.
And with Josh McQuoid counting his goals in threes for Bournemouth in recent weeks, it’s the perfect time to give him a run to see if he’s capable of making the step up.
The game is already close to being sold out but, still, there is bound to have been a bit of apathy among fans when Worthington named what was virtually his regular squad last week.
Now there will be renewed interest. Will any of the new boys play? What formation will the manager use?
And how will some of these youngsters take to the international stage? Questions that wouldn’t have been posed had the old guard been around.
Also, seven of the squad were in America and Chile during the summer, so maybe that much-maligned trip was worthwhile after all.
Still, as I wrote at the time of those games, it’ll be a while yet before we really uncover the answer to that.