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Football: It was nothing personal, Lawrie

By Paul Ferguson

So Lawrie Sanchez wants his jacket and tie back?

So Lawrie Sanchez wants his jacket and tie back?

After flinging those souvenirs into the arms of delirious Kop fans on Wednesday night, and then walking away from Windsor Park to consider his future, he's now decided he DOES want to remain as Northern Ireland boss.

And that's good news for the stability of our international team.

Sanchez is staying in the Northern Ireland hotseat and it will be business as usual for the European qualifying game against Denmark in Copenhagen next month.

A huge sigh of relief resounded around Northern Ireland yesterday lunchtime.

The Sanchez saga is over - well for now.

No need for any more speculation - after three long days of silence, Sanchez revealed his much awaited thoughts.

His love affair with the Green and White Army goes on.

And maybe now we can all finally sit back, enjoy David Healy's hat-trick and revel in Northern Ireland's tremendous victory over the might of Spain on Wednesday night.

Sanchez released a detailed statement and in it he stated: "I have decided to continue in my role for the remainder of my contract".

The former Wimbledon 1988 FA Cup hero admitted he had considered quitting his position and singled out the Northern Ireland media as the main reason for him taking time-out to consider his future.

Sanchez fired a broadside at what he thought was unwarranted criticism of himself and his team.

The ex-Wycombe Wanderers boss feels he and his squad of players are not getting the respect they deserve.

After outstanding performances and results against England, Portugal and Spain the 46-year old believes criticism should come their way if they play poorly but that the "ferocity of criticism from certain sections of the media astonished me".

But hasn't the players' tremendous level of performance during the last year raised the bar to a new level? Expectation is now higher than ever.

The team, made up mostly of Championship players with a few from the Premiership, have mostly been working superbly as an excellent cohesive unit.

The fact that Iceland were 34 places below Northern Ireland in the FIFA rankings only added to opinion that a positive result was expected.

Shocking defending and the inability to cope with the presence of Barcelona superstar Eidur Gudjohnsen ultimately cost us dear and fans booed their heroes off at half and full time. Those in the Windsor Park press box remained silent!

In his own words, Sanchez announced last Saturday he expected to face "A Sunday from Hell". He realised that his players had let down the passionate Windsor Park fans.

But to be honest the coverage was only a slap on the wrists. Some of the players even admitted they deserved it.

Certainly I remember a lot more stinging criticism after a humiliating defeat against Canada and a draw with Malta in Valletta.

It is all so hard to understand, given that Sanchez, by and large, has enjoyed a decent working relationship with most journalists and a fair wind from the headline writers.

There have been disagreements, that is to be expected, but in most instances any problems were resolved.

He's a manager who was always available for comment and considered media friendly. He even conducted his own media conferences without the the need for IFA press officers.

That was, of course, before Wednesday evening.

Even when he had issue over a story I wrote on the US Tour in May, Sanchez remained professional, continuing to take my calls and answer all my questions. I could ask for no more.

He seemed to accept praise and criticism equally. His view was that it's part of the job.

On the morning of the Spain match this week, two local journalists filled their morning newspaper columns with praise for Sanchez's ability to handle the press and insisted that he could teach Republic of Ireland boss Stephen Staunton a thing or two in dealing with media attention.

Only three weeks ago, Sanchez held an "Off the Record" meeting with the local media's Sports Editors to ensure they, and he, began the Euro campaign all singing from the same hymn sheet. It was all very amicable.

But somehow or other, the entente cordial fell apart, leaving the media mystified.

Sanchez felt after the Iceland defeat that he had to seriously question whether he wanted to continue as he deemed some of the criticism so fierce.

Yet the majority of the media here would consider themselves strongly supportive of the manager and team.

And they would argue the response to the Iceland defeat was responsible and mild in most cases compared to the supporter reaction and in keeping with his plea to refrain from 'boom and bust' reporting.

Its true Sanchez refused to get carried away by the plaudits heaped on him after the Azerbaijan, England and Portugal games last year.

But there were also glowing reports from a US Tour that registered two defeats against Uruguay and Romania. It was recognised that an extremely inexperienced squad had given their all and had come away with a huge amount of credit. In Finland last month praise came Sanchez's way again.

Had he attended his obligatory media conference on Wednesday night after the magnificent Spain result, he would more than likely have received a hugely positive response.

The media would also have been hugely sympathetic had they been privy to the sad news that his partner Claire's mother had passed away the previous week.

Against Iceland last weekend, there were very few positives to report and he knows that. He totally understands how the media game works. So what was the difference this time?

We've also known and understood from day one that here was an ambitious manager on the way up with designs on a top club job in England.

Our attitude has always been one of hope that he realises his dream - because it would have been founded on taking Northern Ireland to heights a generation here have never experienced.

But at the risk of upsetting him further, the question must be asked - if Sanchez finds it difficult to deal with the Northern Ireland media, pussycats in the main, then how would he ever cope with the tabloid Rottweilers in England if, and when, he returns to take up a club management post?

Whatever, the bottom line here is that all this is not about managerial or media sensitivities.

It is about the prosperity of our national team in which we all have a vested interest.

And for what he has achieved and the journey he has taken us all on these past two and a half years, those interests are best served by him remaining in charge.

We knew that all along but maybe didn't make it clear enough - though we thought we did.

You're wanted Lawrie, and as you've frequently pointed out when you've made decisions that didn't go down well with players - and the press - its nothing personal.

We're glad you're staying - but the next Press Conference should be interesting.

Lawrie Sanchez statement

As many people will be aware, there has been much speculation over my future as Northern Ireland manager in the wake of our fantastic victory over Spain.

I would like to apologise if the unfortunate sequence of events overshadowed that incredible win, but I felt I needed time to address several serious issues in the wake of the matches against both Iceland and Spain.

I would also like to thank the people of Northern Ireland for the amazing support they have shown to both the players and myself since I took over two-and-a-half years ago. The fact Windsor Park is regularly sold out for our home matches is not only testament to the progress we have made but also to the depth of loyalty among Northern Ireland fans.

Unfortunately, that support does not seem to be reflected in the coverage the team receives from some sections of the Northern Ireland media. During my time in charge, we have risen 52 places in the FIFA rankings, beaten World Cup quarter-finalists, England and Spain, as well as drawing with World Cup semi-finalists, Portugal. One more victory would take my record past that of every manager since Billy Bingham.

Despite these successes, the level and ferocity of the criticism from certain sections of the media has astonished me. Certainly the Northern Ireland team deserve more respect for what we have achieved and the progress that has been made these past three seasons.

Criticism is part and parcel of football but some of the criticism has been out of all proportion, especially when considering the team had not won for 15 matches and had failed to score in 1,298 minutes before I took over. I know that I did not come from the golden age of the 1982 and 1986 World Cup teams however, I was immensely proud to represent Northern Ireland if only for three times as a player and those caps hold pride of place in my home.

It led me to question whether I wanted to continue as Northern Ireland manager and if the team could continue to make such progress in this climate of negativity.

But after discussions with the IFA and largely thanks to the tremendous messages of support I've received from the people of Northern Ireland, I have decided to continue in my role for the remainder of my contract.

All I have ever asked of my players is total commitment to the Northern Ireland cause and therefore I know they would expect nothing less from me.

There has been speculation linking me with managerial positions in England but I categorically deny the underlying events of the past few days have been sparked by any desire to return to club football.

I hope we can now put this series of events behind us and continue working for the benefit and progress of Northern Ireland football. With the continued support of the fans, I am certain that the team will produce many more performances as memorable as Wednesday's victory. Onwards and upwards.


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