Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland fans can help us get back on track

By Steven Beacom

A new season. And what Northern Ireland fans want is fresh hope.

Somehow despite a string of disappointing results and the lack of confidence that has brought, a promising young player not wanting to join the squad and a key performer pulling out late with injury, manager Michael O'Neill must provide it tonight.

The supporters will not go to Windsor Park this evening demanding a victory, but they will need to see the home team put on a highly committed performance that offers encouragement for the future.

Of course it won't be easy against a Russian side, led by Fabio Capello, and with a host of top class players, but perhaps this is exactly the match that is required to start changing things for the better.

Unlike when earlier in the World Cup qualifying campaign Luxembourg, Azerbaijan and even Israel came to Belfast, this time Northern Ireland are massive underdogs and Russia red hot favourites.

Down the years that has brought out the best in our wee country. Certainly the Green and White Army will be desperate for another of those 'famous Windsor nights'.

The supporters can play their part of course.

This week, just as he did five months ago after the 2-0 defeat to Israel, Gareth McAuley addressed the elephant in the room when speaking about the atmosphere in the stadium over the last two years.

McAuley believes the support from the stands has not been like it once was when the Green and White Army pushed the team over the line. His opinions have not gone down well with many fans.

The thing is the relationship between the Northern Ireland team and the supporters has always been fundamental to any success we've enjoyed.

That '12th man on the Kop' combined with the fight, fire and drive on the pitch has won many matches for our wee country.

In recent games too many players have felt on edge. The pride, passion and belief has been replaced with fear, anxiety and negativity.

It started on a torrid September night in Tallinn two years ago when the fans turned on the then manager Nigel Worthington and the players.

On occasions, I've heard the Northern Ireland team booed off by the fans frustrated by poor results, but that balmy evening in Estonia there was fury in the air and Worthington took most of the abuse during and after a shocking 4-1 defeat in the European Championship qualifier.

As the squad boarded their coach outside the stadium, a large number of fans who had stayed behind continued the criticism and certain players bit back.

The relationship hasn't been the same since which is unfortunate for O'Neill, who can do with all the help he can get , because this frostiness didn't start on his watch.

Tonight he is without Kyle Lafferty (injured), Chris Brunt (suspended) and Ryan McLaughlin (not interested at present), but he still has genuine quality, especially at the back in goalkeeper Roy Carroll and defenders Jonny Evans, Aaron Hughes and McAuley.

While scoring goals in the World Cup games has been a problem (only Malta, Kazakhstan, Faroe Islands, Andorra and San Marino have netted less than Northern Ireland in this campaign), an even more concerning issue for O'Neill is that in his nine games in charge his team have only kept a clean sheet once – and that was against Malta!

I'm sure he would take 0-0 against Russia right now.

That result would continue the winless run which stands at 13, but it would provide the fresh hope the fans crave.

Tonight the team and the fans must be as one.

Any sort of split in the ranks makes us weak.

Together we can be strong and give Capello's team a competitive game.

Belfast Telegraph


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