Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Steven Beacom: I had my doubts, but Worthy is the right man for the job

Steven Beacom

On Saturday night Nigel Worthington was singing in the rain.

Today he was basking in the Spanish sun.

Worthington cuts a far more relaxed figure these days.

The horrors of Riga and Reykjavik seem a world away now.

After those dreadful defeats against Iceland and Latvia, which had followed a routine win over Liechtenstein in his first game in charge, his chances of staying on as Northern Ireland manager looked grim.

Indeed, it is understood that some influential IFA figures were already dreaming up a possible list of replacements.

You could hardly blame them.

In those games Worthington made some awful selection and tactical errors in what turned out to be a shocking September.

Worst of all was leaving Stephen Craigan out against Latvia.

Bar David Healy, up until then Craigan had been Northern Ireland's best performer in the European Championship qualifying campaign.

What made the decision more bizarre was that captain Aaron Hughes was out injured meaning that the team entered a crucial game without their two recognised centre-backs.

The defence suffered for that decision and so did the team as Northern Ireland lost 1-0.

Surely Craigan would return for the match in Iceland four days later.

Not a chance. Nigel stubbornly stuck with the back four who had underperformed in Riga, once again leaving Craigan on the bench.

Again the defending lacked one of the Motherwell man's main qualities - organisation - and Northern Ireland lost 2-1.

Craigan's omission may have been baffling, but some of Worthington's substitutions, or lack of them, during the Latvia and Iceland encounters caused concern too.

And then came that disturbing incident on the plane home from Reykjavik involving Keith Gillespie and George McCartney, sparking claims of ill-discipline in the camp.

At that stage the Green and White Army were cursing Fulham chairman Mohammed al Fayed for taking Lawrie Sanchez away.

Under Sanchez, the team were heading to Austria and Switzerland for the Euro 2008 finals.

Under former Norwich boss Worthington those dreams were evaporating quicker than you could say Delia Smith.

In football though you can go from zero to hero pretty quickly.

And thankfully that has happened to Nigel and with it Northern Ireland's dreams have come alive again.

Sure, it is a huge ask to go to Spain and win and, of course, we also need Latvia to do us a favour in Sweden, but at least Worthington has taken it down to the wire.

He learned from his previous mistakes and brought Craigan into the starting line-up for the match against Sweden in Stockholm last month.

Having Hughes back from injury helped and suddenly the rearguard looked much more solid giving the team a base to build on.

And boy did they, with Worthington's tactics on the mark and Kyle Lafferty playing like a man inspired to score and earn the visitors a deserved 1-1 draw.

Almost as important as the result was that the players' faith in the manager was restored, so much so that a few of them, including the main man David Healy, stated that they wanted the IFA to give him a longer contract.

Suddenly those up at Windsor Avenue were falling over themselves to back the boss.

And then came Saturday's brilliant result when Northern Ireland beat Denmark 2-1.

Again Worthington's tactics were spot on.

I'm quite happy to admit that I've had my doubts about Worthington as an international manager, especially after Latvia and Iceland.

But I believe he is now growing into the job and I'm coming to the conclusion, certainly regarding team selection, that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

I'd like to see him continue and he will if we qualify.

If we don't, it will be interesting to see what happens.

Up until the Danish game, insiders were telling me that he would prefer a return to club management.

But after the atmosphere at Windsor and the joy of the occasion, word is he may now fancy staying around, especially if the forthcoming World Cup draw is appealing.

That would be good news, not just because he is improving, but also because there aren't too many other big names who would fancy a crack at taking charge of our wee country.

When Lawrie Sanchez left, the IFA weren't exactly inundated with offers to take over.

The ideal situation is, of course, that Worthington will guide Northern Ireland to the Euro 2008 finals and won't be thinking about moving to some club in the Championship.

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