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I saw Nicholl and thought: It's over

Lawrie Sanchez on the day he believed his ambition to manage 'our wee country' had gone up in smoke

I am a great believer in circles. Life is full of circles. I began my playing career at reading at the age of 17 and my first match was against Wimbledon with Dave Bassett in the centre of midfield.

Then my last full game as a professional player in England was for Swindon - against Wimbledon.

When I took over at Wycombe Wanderers as manager we were fighting relegation.

Towards the end of the season we had a match against Macclesfield, who were managed by Sammy McIlroy.

We beat them, we avoided relegation.

The following Christmas Sammy took over as manager of the Northern Ireland team and at the time I thought, as you have to do as a manager, where is my next job?

And I thought of Sammy at Northern Ireland and thought that perhaps that was a job I could do.

So, lo and behold, four years later I get the sack from Wycombe, on September 30, 2003.

About two weeks later Sammy walks out of the Northern Ireland job and takes over at Stockport. And I'm thinking someone is trying to tell me something.

I phoned the IFA and asked what they were doing about the job vacancy.

They said there was no rush to appoint a new manager because the draw for the World Cup qualifiers wasn't for some time.

But they wanted someone with Northern Ireland qualifications, so I knew I qualified.

I told the general secretary David Bowen I was very interested and what should I do?

He said they noted my interest but they didn't want to do anything for a couple of months.

So I asked: "Do I hang on hoping I'll get a chance and get on the shortlist or do I just apply for other jobs?"

And I think David said I would have a chance and would certainly be on the shortlist, so I said I would hang on because that's what I was interested in.

So I took a gamble and every month I phoned up and said: "What are you going to do? When are you going to appoint?"

And they said there was no rush because there wasn't a competitive game until February.

The draw for the World Cup was done in December 2003 - and England and Wales were in the group.

I thought "Aw, that knocks my chances", because obviously there's going to be one or two big name candidates who are out of work who are now going to be interested.

So I phoned up - again - and said: "What's happening now there's been the World Cup draw?"

David Bowen said nothing had changed - they were still looking for people with Northern Ireland credentials and they would be discussing candidates over the next few weeks.

I got a phone call from the IFA in January, 2004, and they said they'd like to interview me.

I went over to Belfast, to Windsor Avenue, and it was the first time I had been there, because as a Northern Ireland player you never went to Windsor Avenue.

It's a lovely old building. I was aware it was the former home of Thomas Andrews, the designer of the Titanic - and I thought there was a certain irony there because of the position the team was in at the time.

I got picked up from the airport by William Campbell, the IFA head of finance and personnel at the time, and he took me to the Stormont Hotel.

I said: "What are we doing here?" He said they were interviewing another candidate and they wanted to keep us apart. So I was kept in a holding station.

I later found out that the other candidate was Jimmy Nicholl; he was the favourite for the job.

He had so many caps playing for Northern Ireland and was a World Cup legend. But I went along.

There were a lot of people on the interview panel - the president Jim Boyce, general secretary Bowen, vice president Raymond Kennedy, Mr Campbell and members of the international committee.

I outlined my points, but I think the thing which swung it was when they asked who my assistant manager would be - and I said Gerry Armstrong had agreed to do the job.

All ears pricked up. Gerry was part of the legendary World Cup squad of 1982 and they felt that if someone of his calibre wanted to work with me as my assistant it would be easier to 'sell' to the Northern Ireland fans.

I knew Gerry through our time in football and had called to ask him if he would work with me.

And when I got the job he asked: "How did you pull that one off?"

I said: "Look Gerry, we're going to try and pull a few things off now."

The first person I met when I went to Windsor Avenue for my interview was Derek McKinley, who had been the kit man during my playing days and was still there in that role.

It was nice to see a familiar face, and he welcomed me.

Jimmy Nicholl was still in the building and I went across to say hello to him.

I flew over for the Press conference at Windsor Avenue.

The IFA told me they had never seen anything like it - there was so much media interest, not just within Northern Ireland, but Sky TV were there as well.

Up until then Northern Ireland hadn't been considered such a big story.

They (the IFA) were very surprised - but it was an indication of what was to come.

I wondered what I should say. At my interview for the job I had indicated that my aims were to get Northern Ireland scoring again, get them winning and rise up the FIFA world rankings.

Everyone needs something to hang their hat on and I had thought: "What do Northern Ireland need to succeed?"

And it was quite obvious what they needed - I just had to express it.

And so I did, at my interview and at the Press conference.

After the England win, anything was possible

The England game was the turning point in many respects with what we were attempting to achieve with Northern Ireland.

The fact that we got something - we actually won the game - meant that everything we had worked towards brought belief into the squad.

I said to the players: "This is a 'gimme' for you; nobody expects us to win, so whatever you do achieve will be held in high esteem."

We had a game plan and I brought in coach Les Reed to have a look at what we did, not just for the England game but to give us an oversight of what we needed to do.

Les had worked in the England camp with the national side and we wanted to make sure that we were well prepared.

He gave us some insight into what England do.

He didn't have much interaction with the squad beyond observing, but he did say at one meeting: "If you do what I've seen you do over the course of this week, you will cause England problems."

And I think, after that, one or two of the players who had been a bit worried about it started to relax.

It was a fantastic night. The Rudyard Kipling poem 'If' says that if you win or lose you should treat both imposters the same, and that's how I deal with it.

I was pleased that we had done a professional job, pleased for the players.

There is a paternal pride when you are a manager.

And I was pretty pleased for the fans as well.

It was nearly 80 years since England had been beaten in Belfast, and for it to happen in a competitive fixture made it even better.

Sometimes sport transcends politics, and I think that, on that night, it did for Northern Ireland.

There have been so many highs from my time as Northern Ireland manager.

There were some lows as well, but more highs.

The best time for me was the feeling of satisfaction after the England, Spain and Sweden games.

Just standing, watching the players do their lap of honour in front of the crowd at Windsor Park.

To see the elation on their faces - players who wouldn't have ever dreamed of doing that type of stuff.

The Stephen Craigans of this world, who would give their right arm to play for Northern Ireland.

Obviously you've got the stars of the team.

Everybody knows Healy, Gillespie. They're self-evident but the solid players in the team, Michael Duff, Craigan . . . to see them through all their hard work, crystallise moments not once, not twice, but three times, and see them share that with the crowd.

Just standing there, with all my coaching staff around me, enjoying the moment.

They were the best times for me.

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