Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Jim Gracey: Expect the unexpected

Sports Editor

We're not Brazil, we're Northern Ireland...that's why Nigel's our man

So who were you expecting? Jose Mourinho?

The self-style Special One may have kept my meejah mates in headlines.

But I'd back Nigel Worthington to produce better football any day.

FA Cup Final anyone?

The trouble with critics is they are the only people you ever hear from.

For every carper and begrudger, there are scores of quietly satisfied customers, passing no remark.

And so it is with Nigel Worthington's succession to the Northern Ireland throne.

From the prattle of the powerless on internet websites to the empty vessels making most noise on radio phone-ins...

On and on they banged, for all the difference it will make, about cheap options, long ball games, the big names they expected and shock, horror.. the minute he makes a success of us, he'll be away to a big club job like Lawrie.

The silent majority listened, tried to place the strident opinion formers from somewhere among the thousands of empty Windsor Park seats four short years ago, and said nowt.

Not necessarily because they wholly approve of the Irish FA's choice, though if my grown-up supporter and media contemporaries are any indicator, many do.

Because we are realists.

For all our advances under Sanchez, we are still a wee country punching well above our weight.

That's great, long may it continue under Nige and thank you Lawrie for getting us there.

But to quote the late, lamented Alan Ball, who understood the game's harsh realities better than most: "Football is a beautiful game and a dirty business."

That being the case, we can demand all we want that our managers share our flag-waving passion and patriotism and I can testify, from knowing the bloke 27 years, that Nigel ticks those boxes in abundance.

But in the real modern football world we will never attract a Mourinho, Ferguson, Wenger or Ancelotti.

Nor can we ever expect to hold on to an upwardly mobile young manager when a cash rich club takes note of his Northern Ireland achievements.

Outside the handful of glamour nations, international football today plays second fiddle to the top-level club game in terms of rewards and prestige.

The goalposts have shifted and we must move with them.

If, like Sanchez, Nige is head-hunted back to the club game, it will be because of he has been a success with Northern Ireland.

Conversely, if he is an unmitigated disaster, which I doubt, that short-term six month contract means we're not stuck with him, so credit to the much-maligned IFA for that.

In football terms we have become a 'selling club' and once we get over our delusions and realise that we aren't indeed Brazil, that is no bad thing.

Give me young, ambitious managers eager to take us - and them - places we have never been any day, ahead of the clueless cheer leaders and pension fund top-up merchants we used to employ.

And to those who wanted a 'name', remember Lawrie Sanchez wasn't a big managerial name til he made one for himself.

Consider, too, that when Sanchez took the job few wanted three years ago, Nigel Worthington was then out of our league.

That is how far we have come and why expectations are so high, unrealistically so in some cases.

Unlike irony, in short supply with the scribblers who couldn't wait to see the back of Sanchez and now declaring the jury out on Worthington - because he's not Sanchez!

Hello? Have you checked the clippings files?

Here is a guy who epitomises the Northern Ireland work ethic.

Leaving Ballymena's Dunclug Secondary School, aged 16, without formal qualifications, he went straight out to work as a bricklayer on a building site and then onto the factory floor in the town's Michelin tyre plant.

Football ability alone hasn't brought him to this point 30 years on.

Sheer determination and a ferocious appetite for bettering himself and his teams played a huge part.



You have to admire his courage, too.

Comfortably off from his three decades around the higher reaches of the game, he could have sat back and awaited another fire-fighting offer like Leicester's, successfully accomplished.

Instead he has elected to put his reputation on the line for a cause he holds dear, knowing failure will not see him judged favourably among his own.

Lawrie's impeccable timing in getting out when his stock was highest won't have been lost on an equally shrewd cookie like Nige.

Those upcoming four away games were always going to make or break our Euro Finals dream of lakes and mountains next summer. Even with Lawrie still on board, getting there would have been a bonus.

Third is about as good as we can realistically expect and that would still represent tremendous progress to build on from three years ago.

Sanchez did brilliantly for us, there's no doubt about that.

But we shouldn't be seduced into believing he was a one-off, just because we never had his like before.

Our Nige is off the same conveyor belt of studied, driven, ambitious, thinking young managers.

Like Lawrie, only more experienced, he's well schooled in organising, motivating and getting the best out of a limited lot, which is what we are. Lawrie was blessed, too, with the goals of David Healy and if they continue to flow for Nige, who knows?

The new boss has his own GOAL...

Pinned up on the back of his office door at Norwich was his philosophy for managerial success - Graft, Organisation, Ability, Luck!

I visited him there on his promotion push to the Premiership and discovered another firing up his players as they left the dressing room - the American rallying cry from the blockbuster film Pearl Harbor.

It read: 'Victory belongs to those who want it the most and those who believe in it the longest.'

Don't expect anything less from Nigel Worthington.

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