Sammy McIlroy: Where are the recruits to replace Northern Ireland’s old guard?
Mention Sammy McIlroy’s reign as Northern Ireland manager to any fan and more often than not the first thing that will come into their head is the awful goal drought that dogged the team for two years.
In contrast to his success-filled playing days, when he was a key member of Billy Bingham’s team that beat Spain in the 1982 World Cup finals before going on to captain Northern Ireland in Mexico four years later, McIlroy’s time as manager of his country is remembered for all the wrong reasons.
The entire Euro 2004 qualifying campaign passed without a win in eight games and there wasn’t even a single goal for the fans to cheer on some long nights at Windsor Park.
A scoreless draw at home to Spain lifted the mood slightly, but a second defeat against Armenia a few months later brought the doom and gloom back.
When some of the players McIlroy wanted to build his team around decided it was time to end their international careers, the young players who boasted plenty of potential didn’t have enough old heads to look up to.
McIlroy made Aaron Hughes captain for the first time when the Cookstown-man was just 22-years-old — becoming one of the youngest ever players to skipper his country.
With Hughes’ international career now over — injury has ruled him out of making farewell appearances in Friday night’s Euro 2012 qualifier against Estonia and the trip to Italy next Tuesday after announcing his intention to retire last month — on the back of Damien Johnson, George McCartney and Stephen Craigan stepping away from the international scene over the last 15 months, McIlroy now fears that history could repeat itself.
And after enduring rather than enjoying his time of international boss before taking up an offer from Stockport County in October 2004, it’s not a scenario that he would wish on anyone. Particularly if Hughes’ decision now sparks a domino effect.
“I hope what happened to me doesn’t ever happen to another Northern Ireland manager,” said McIlroy.
“Things went well at the start, but then we had experienced players like Neil Lennon, Jim Magilton, Gerry Taggart and Kevin Horlock all retiring almost at the same time.
“Not only were they big players for us who had a lot of international experience, they were all Premier League players and losing players of that quality is difficult for almost any country, outside of the very top nations.
“I had to change a lot of things all at once and it was very, very difficult — especially when there is still an expectation to win matches.
“We have never had the biggest of squads to start with, so losing four players who would have been regulars made life very difficult.
“I’d already brought some young players through and I felt that there was a bit of quality in the under-21 squad and brought a lot of them through as well.
“Most of them have gone on to have good international careers, which I am proud of.”
Five members of Nigel Worthington’s squad that assembled on the outskirts of Belfast last night — Chris Baird, Grant McCann, Paddy McCourt, Warren Feeney and David Healy — were all given their debuts by McIlroy.
He also brought McCartney and Craigan into the squad, while Johnson was given his first start during the McIlroy era.
At 40-years-old, this is expected to be Maik Taylor’s international swansong. McCann and Gareth McAuley will both be 32 by the time the 2014 World Cup qualifiers kick-off, while David Healy, who will be 33 next August, is now the oldest outfield player in the current Northern Ireland squad. It wouldn’t be a huge shock if the country’s record goalscorer was to be the next to retire.
“Losing Aaron Hughes at 31-years-old — a player who has never really had a lot of trouble with injuries during his career — is a wrench because Northern Ireland can’t replace a player like that,” said McIlroy.
“It’s a shame he’s retiring because he’s been a fantastic role model for Northern Ireland.
“For me as a manager he was a fantastic player to work with. A really good pro who did everything that was asked of him on and off the pitch.
“There is no doubt that he’ll be missed by Northern Ireland because there is still plenty of football in him.
“Hopefully it won’t trigger others to follow. There’s a question mark over David Healy. He hasn’t played much at Rangers. I know David and I don’t think he will want to be sitting on the bench for Northern Ireland.”