Pride of a nation resting on Nigel
Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington has admitted he will be bursting with pride if his side can realise their World Cup qualification dream.
Poland will be out to edge Worthington’s men off the road to South Africa in Chorzow this evening,, but the Ballymena-man’s eyes are firmly fixed on the promised land of the Rainbow Nation.
The last time Northern Ireland featured in a major tournament, Worthington was patrolling the left side of his team’s defence in the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico.
Now he plans to guide the current crop of dreamers back to football’s world stage and this is crunch time.
Defeat at the Slaski Stadium might not officially kill off Northern Ireland’s World Cup dream, but the players would struggle to get off the ropes and keep fighting with any conviction.
Worthington already has his own cherished World Cup memories, now his number one goal in life is to see his troops go to war with the world’s best.
“It doesn't matter if you are playing or managing, there is a huge sense of pride and satisfaction representing your country,” he said.
“It is a pinnacle of your career. I was very, very fortunate to get to the 1986 finals with a top class group of players.
“I have wonderful memories of that. If we can go and emulate that, these players can enjoy that same wonderful feeling.
“It would be a goal fulfiled if you are in international football. For Northern Ireland to qualify, for the size of the country, would be phenomenal.
“As a youngster you dream of playing at a World Cup finals. The likes of the O'Neills, McClellands, Armstrongs, Donaghys, Jennings. They have been there and got the acclaim and this current group of players wants to replicate that.”
Worthington was dealt a late blow yesterday when George McCartney was forced to pull-out with a hamstring injury but Jonny Evans is on hand to deputise at left-back.
The manager and his players though have every reason to be brimming with confidence after four wins on the spin, but the tide of history is against them as Northern Ireland haven’t beaten a top seeded side away from home since a 1-0 win at Romania in 1985 to smooth the path to the World Cup Finals in Mexico the following year.
However, Northern Ireland did conquer Poland in Chorzow back in October, 1962 when Bertie Peacock’s first game in charge ended in a 2-0 victory.
“People talk about our poor away form, but the heroics of the 1982 and 1986 teams can be a great selling tool to the players,” added the former Norwich supremo.
“We were there twice in the 1980s and those players were looked upon as heroes and very fortunate people who did well for their country.
“I know for a fact, this group would love to emulate that. They will be doing their utmost to do it.
“What better time, with three games remaining in the group, to grab this opportunity, get a good result away from home.
“Over the next three games there is a wonderful stage there for heroes to emerge and rise and put us on the map.”
Worthington has been down this road before. In 1985 he and his comrades had to dig deep to make the finals in Mexico and he can see a similar togetherness in the class of 2009.
“We drew 0-0 with England back then, we needed a point and we got it,” he added.
“It was backs against the wall.
“The oldest in the group Pat Jennings was man of the match. He made four or five magnificent saves. I can still see them now.
“What a feeling to get that point and qualify.
“It was a great sense of achievement.
“When you have five or six months to look forward to — the finals — which are so special to the world of football, there is a lot of excitement.
“The chance to make history isn’t something we have discussed.We have picked up momentum with four wins in the group.
“Players are the first to know when something positive is happening.
“This group is first class. If it happens for us, terrific. If it doesn't, it won't be for the lack of trying.”
Worthington also paid a glowing tribute to goalkeeper Maik Taylor who celebrated his 38th birthday yesterday.
“Maik has been fantastic,” he said.
“I have been involved for the past two years and from day one he has been terrific.
“I remember the first time I met Maik in Northern Ireland. He put himself out to play against Everton in Coleraine with a group of 21-year-olds. That speaks volumes for the man.
“On the pitch he has been a star and off the pitch he is a magnificent professional. Any manager needs a player like that around the place.”
Worthington will certainly be relying on Taylor’s safe hands this evening.