Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

So, where did it all go wrong for Northern Ireland?

Shocked: Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis and defender Jonny Evans can't hide their disgust after crashing to defeat in Luxembourg
Shocked: Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis and defender Jonny Evans can't hide their disgust after crashing to defeat in Luxembourg

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Momentum had been built up with that fabulous 1-0 victory over Russia and despite last week's 4-2 defeat to Portugal it had been maintained thanks to what was a fine performance from Northern Ireland against Cristiano Ronaldo and co.

But for the foolish red cards for Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty, it was a World Cup qualifier that Michael O'Neill's men would have won.

It was all set fare for a lovely trip to Luxembourg to keep the feelgood factor going.

The players appeared focused ahead of the match. The manager spoke about how the 90 minutes was payback time for Luxembourg gaining a shock draw in Belfast 12 months before.

And when news came through before kick-off that Russia had beaten Israel, there was even greater incentive because it meant if Northern Ireland could win their last three Group F fixtures, starting in Luxembourg, they would finish third in the table.

What a boost that would be going into the 2016 European Championship qualifiers.

This was Northern Ireland's chance to show how much progression had been made. This was the chance to show the team was moving forward. This was the chance to show how O'Neill was getting it right.

So, where did it all go wrong?

Reflecting on the humiliating and embarrassing 3-2 defeat against a bunch of part-timers, who had not won a home World Cup qualifier since 1972, the problems began in Belfast with those two crazy dismissals for Brunt and Lafferty.

The pair of them may have annoyed Northern Ireland fans for years, but we could have done with them in Luxembourg, for their experience and their height because apart from Roy Carroll, Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley the visiting side was made up of players smaller in stature to most of the Luxembourg players.

Size shouldn't matter that much in football, as Barcelona have proved, but right from the start of the fixture, Northern Ireland's midfield was overpowered and too often the strikers failed to hold on to the ball when strong challenges came their way.

That gave Luxembourg confidence which continued to grow throughout the game.

O'Neill wanted the players to begin with the same high tempo and energy apparent in the fixtures against Russia and Portugal, but it never happened.

Playing in black, it seemed as though the colours matched their mood. They were slow and sluggish, lacking drive, desire and determination.

O'Neill said afterwards that within five minutes of kick-off he could tell the players weren't at the levels attained during the previous two qualifiers.

What a telling statement. Five minutes.

Fortunate not to be behind, Northern Ireland took the lead on 14 minutes courtesy of a splendid Martin Paterson finish.

It should have settled them down and been a major setback for Luxembourg. It wasn't.

The pattern continued with Jamie Ward losing the ball far too easily and the midfield four of Steve Davis, Oliver Norwood, Shane Ferguson and Niall McGinn losing the run of themselves.

O'Neill wasn't helped when McGinn went off injured on 35 minutes, but wouldn't a wiser option have been to bring on Corry Evans as a straight right wing replacement? With O'Connor's introduction into central midfield other players had to switch positions.

All the re-organisation seemed to do was make the team more shambolic, as they gave the ball away constantly and were finally punished, though how on earth, after losing possession upfield, with a 1-0 lead in first half injury time O'Neill's team ended up in a three v three situation is beyond me. The positioning of left-back Daniel Lafferty was mind boggling.

Schoolboys don't defend that naively. Luxembourg scored and could see a rare win on the horizon walking towards their dressing room for the break.

That goal should have been a wake-up call for Northern Ireland, but save for a few minutes here and there most of the players slept through the second half.

Captain Davis, normally such a reliable figure, had one of his worst games ever at international level, though he wasn't helped by those beside him in midfield.

As Luxembourg pressed it looked as though we were watching a game of 11 v 3 with Roy Carroll, Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans standing in the way of Northern Ireland getting a pasting.

It was that bad. And I remind you this was against part-time players; bankers, students, a caretaker in a gym.

The game was just too open. Someone playing for Northern Ireland needed to take a grip and close the thing down. Again nothing. Leadership was lacking out there.

Not from Luxembourg though who kept going. Shamefully, they wanted it more scoring again on 78 minutes and even though McAuley looked as though he had rescued a point with a header, once more Northern Ireland lost their shape, discipline and any sense of togetherness when they conceded the winner late on.

Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong.

The most frustrating factor is that the worst result in our history was preventable had all the Northern Ireland players entered the game with the correct attitude, made possession count rather than throwing it away like a dirty hankie, and simply got the basics right.

On a night when the Irish FA were coming to terms with the Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin warning that they had to get their governance right otherwise the Windsor Park money would be withdrawn, you wonder about the wider picture and if the Association can do more to help the Northern Ireland manager and the national team in the future.

Well, recently they have, by appointing Jim Magilton as the Elite Performance Director, tasked with finding the country's top young players and inspiring them to blossom into top class internationals.

What else would help? The IFA not getting involved in controversy such as David Martin's return to high office potentially blocking £25 million for the re-development of Windsor.

Most of all though O'Neill and his players must help themselves. They are better than this.

Where do you think Northern Ireland went wrong? Leave your comments below

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