Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Slovenia: Our boys need rub of the green

By Graham Luney

Northern Ireland need to overcome an injury crisis to defeat Slovenia and keep their Euro 2012 qualifying dream alive tonight but boss Nigel Worthington says he still believes in his depleted squad.

It’s crunch time in Group C for Worthington’s men as another loss would leave their qualification hopes in tatters.

The pressure is on without the suspended David Healy and injured trio, captain Aaron Hughes, Kyle Lafferty and Steven Davis, making the challenge a formidable one.

Warren Feeney will represent Northern Ireland’s main attacking threat, with Millwall striker Josh McQuoid expected to spring from the bench at some point.

Chris Baird will hand the captain’s armband to Gareth McAuley but if ever Worthy needed 11 leaders on the pitch it is tonight.

After Friday's 2-1 loss in Serbia, it’s time for the men in green to end a five-game run without a triumph at Windsor Park.

“You’ve got to have confidence in the players you have because it’s not as if I’ve had £10million to invest in the squad,” says Worthington.

“I can’t bring in two world class players. I’ve got to have belief in the players and make them feel positive about the role they have.

“We have Warren (Feeney), Brunty, Liam Boyce and Josh (McQuoid) as attack-minded players. Warren is what he is, a fantastic lad who plays with a smile on his face and plays with a lot of passion and energy. He is exactly what we need to get us off to a good start.

“We will miss David’s (Healy) experience but Kyle (Lafferty) is more of a blow because he is a big presence who can latch onto things.

“As long as the players give everything they have, 100 per cent commitment in a green shirt and wear it with pride then I’m happy with that.

“Anything less than that and questions will be asked.

“Everyone to a man wants to do well and wants to qualify. But a country of our size could benefit from a lucky strike. Otherwise it can be ongoing hard work.”

McAuley, who will win his 28th cap this evening, was Northern Ireland’s top performer in Belgrade, his goal being a fitting reward for a commanding display.

Worthington has responded to the Ipswich Town defender’s swashbuckling performance by handing him the captain’s armband.

But by taking it off Baird, Worthington does not anticipate being caught in the same media storm as Fabio Capello when the England manager Capello has faced plenty of questions over the national armband after deciding to reappoint John Terry as skipper ahead of Rio Ferdinand, before yesterday confirming Gareth Barry would lead the side against Ghana.

“I don't think there will be a big media hype over it, I hope not anyway, we're not at that level,” joked boss Worthington.

“We've got a fantastic captain when he's fit in Aaron Hughes. He's our captain. Bairdy had it on Friday because of his 50th cap and I've decided to give to Gareth now.

“Gareth’s a natural leader and he deserves to have the armband,” added Worthington. “I thought he was very solid, dependable and reliable against Serbia. He organises people at the back and that is very important.

“But I’m a big believer in needing 11 captains out there. You shouldn’t need an armband to do your job. Each individual must take on the responsibility of performing for the team.”

Double-headers have been Northern Ireland’s downfall in recent years and Worthington has often highlighted the physical demands on players who aren’t featuring regularly for their clubs.

The former Norwich supremo will recall the previous European Championship campaign when back to back defeats to Latvia and Iceland spelt disaster.

“As near as we can possibly make it, the players who will play are playing regular football with their clubs,” added Worthington.

“You have to look forward in football and the past is the past. You know you are going to get a tough test against Slovenia but we need to win this game to stay in the scrap for that runner-up spot. We’ll be bold, brave and have a go.

“I’d love to be top of the group with 10 points between us and rest but as the song goes, ‘we aren’t Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland’ and we should be respectful of that comment, with expectation levels managed in the right way.”

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