Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Worthington wishing on a few old stars

Jennings, Nicholl, Donaghy, O’Neill, McClelland...It was meant to be a humourous quip from Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington when he was jokingly asked to tell the media what the team that will take on Serbia at Windsor Park this evening will be.

It may, however, have been a wishlist for the international manager.

Not so much wishing that a fountain of eternal youth would make that handful of former stars — all of whom Worthington played alongside during his own international career — available to him.

No, the defensive unit in the current squad is at least as strong as their counterpart of 25 years ago, with Maik Taylor, Jonny Evans, Aaron Hughes and George McCartney all playing in the Premier League this season, as well as Chris Baird — who has played mostly in midfield of late.

If anything Worthington is wishing for a return to a golden era that Big Pat and co. brought to the country in the early 1980s.

We’re getting there, but we’re not quite there yet and that is why the meeting with Serbia this evening is an awful lot more than just a meaningless friendly.

The Northern Ireland players can look enviously at their opponents, because come June next year they will be in South Africa playing in the World Cup finals, while out boys will be on their holidays, thinking ‘what if?’

And wishing they were there.

The 2012 European Championship finals are now the aim — and the quest to make it to Poland and Ukraine begins at 5.30pm today.

And the game is taking place with the idea of giving the team the best possible chance of qualifying very much in mind.

“It brings us together again after the World Cup qualifiers with the next international date not until March,” said Worthington.

“If we didn’t have a game at this time it’s a long time without being together.

“I think you can see the relevance of having the game, the way the players have turned up in their numbers and what’s happening.

“If players aren’t enjoying it then there is always the case where they can be pulled out or they are injured.

“Credit to them and credit to the whole scenario of what has happened in the qualifiers over this last campaign, there are so many positives and we’ve got to look at those positives and keep looking forward.

“We have moved forward over the last two years.

“We are more professional and that is something I believe in. More professional means more money, friendlies bring in revenue to allow me to help the players to prepare better for games and get the best of what they need to help them perform.”

This evening’s game also allows the players an opportunity to erase the memory of the last home match — the fateful 2-0 defeat against Slovakia which all but killed off the World Cup qualifying dream.

Exorcising that ghost won’t be done simply with victory tonight, it will take qualification for a major tournament to really wipe out that.

It’s a friendly that will be analysed by the manager and he is taking it as seriously as any other game during his reign.

“I know as a player and a manager if a Northern Ireland team pulls together and work hard as a unit then we can deal with most teams,” said Worthington.

“If we are one light in any game then you can always struggle.

“It’s important that everyone is ready.

“It’s simple, you don’t want to be embarrassed.

You want to go out and put in a good performance, have pride in the shirt, but if you go out and underestimate the opposition — our players will be well briefed verbally and visually of what Serbia are all about — anyone who goes out underestimating them and not giving the 100 per cent commitment that we need is going to get found out.”

Let’s hope that nobody is found out when it comes to 7.15pm this evening.

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