Belfast Telegraph

Serbia v Northern Ireland: Defining moment for Worthington

By Steven Beacom

Time does fly. It's fast approaching four years since Lawrie Sanchez walked out on Northern Ireland to become the boss at Fulham.

In came Nigel Worthington, a World Cup hero from 1986, and best known on the management scene for his work at Norwich City, where he was employed by Delia Smith.

The Irish FA plan was that the Ballymena man would keep the pot boiling after Sanchez had transformed the national team from one that fed on scraps to a side that feasted on banquets every now and then.

Taking over from Sanchez in 2007, at first on a short-term basis, was never going to be an easy task.

The ex-Wimbledon midfielder, who bombed and lasted less than a year at Craven Cottage, was revered by the Green and White Army for guiding Northern Ireland to famous victories over England and Spain at Windsor Park.

Like him or loathe him — a few players in his squad and more in the media pack were in the latter category — Sanchez was a success and left with Northern Ireland on top of their European Championship qualifying table.

It was up to Worthington, with tough fixtures on the horizon and the difficulty of taking over in mid-campaign, to keep them there.

Unfortunately back-to-back defeats in Latvia and Iceland, when Worthington's team selection was not the wisest, proved decisive with Northern Ireland failing to qualify when a place in the Euro 2008 finals beckoned.

Despite that though there were high points, like a draw in Sweden and a home victory over Denmark, which showed promise and tactical acumen on the manager's part.

He deserved more time and got it. I've always been a great believer that in international football, a manager needs TWO full campaigns to show what he’s all about.

After that, those who pay him and the boss himself have major decisions to make about whether they can go forward together or whether they should call it quits.

After missing out on a place in the 2010 World Cup finals, Nigel is now in his second full campaign.

In the 2012 Euro qualifiers, so far the manager has masterminded a brilliant away win in Slovenia and gained a highly satisfactory 0-0 draw with Italy at Windsor Park, though things went awry in the Faroe Islands, where it finished 1-1.

Still, we would have settled for five points from those three games before a ball was kicked, so instead of thinking about opportunities lost, maybe a more positive outlook should be maintained, ahead of tonight's vital Group C match in Serbia.

As a player Worthington was strong and steady at left-back throughout a fine career, especially at Sheffield Wednesday where he spent an enjoyable decade.

Back then you knew what you were going to get with Nigel.

As Northern Ireland manager, though, he has been gloriously unpredictable on occasion, launching into attacks on his team after poor showings, when perhaps others would have kept the savage criticism in house.

He's also issued orders to players about their club careers, notably David Healy the biggest football hero our country has had in recent times — a suggestion which went down as well as Gary Neville at a convention for Scousers.

And yesterday in the Continental Hotel in Belgrade, he outdid himself, by naming a starting line-up for tonight's game that no-one expected, leaving out battle hardened professionals for kids with little international experience — and making no apologies for it.

He's his own man, that's for sure, willing to give youngsters a chance in the team and genuinely interested in the development of football here, something

his predecessor didn't seem that bothered about.

Worthington, the highest paid manager in our history, also has a better relationship with the media and has finally brought the Irish FA into the 21st century insisting that the national team travel in the style of professional footballers rather than a group of students on a tight budget.

Ultimately, though, it's results that count. And the results in 2011 will define the 48-year-old's reign as Northern Ireland boss.

From March to November, Worthington will take charge of seven group games which will determine his future.

Under Sven-Goran Eriksson, England were called the golden generation, a label the players grew to hate and ultimately never lived up to.

I'd class the current Northern Ireland outfit as the silver squad — unlikely to ever finish first in a group, but with enough ability to be runners-up which would earn them a play-off for the Euro finals in Ukraine and Poland.

Everyone would settle for that now and if we could emerge victorious from it, Worthington would become a national hero.

Tonight's game against Serbia, and the home match with Slovenia next Tuesday, will go a long way to determining if such a prospect is on the cards.

Crunch time has arrived for the Northern Ireland boss.

Nigel Worthington's reign

2007 – Nigel starts his career as Northern Ireland boss with a 3-1 home win over Liechtenstein, but blots his copybook by leaving defensive lynchpin Stephen Craigan out of Euro qualifiers in Latvia and Iceland. Both games were lost and although some ground was made up with a draw in Sweden and brilliant victory over Denmark at Windsor Park, the team missed out on a place in the finals, even though David Healy hit a record 13 goals in qualifying.

2008 – A year with little to cheer bar a 4-0 home win over San Marino in a World Cup qualifier and a 4-1 friendly success against Georgia. Otherwise a scoreless draw with the Czech Republic in the World Cup was as good as it got with defeats in Slovakia and Slovenia seriously denting hopes of making it to South Africa.

2009 – This was much better and started with three World Cup wins in a row against San Marino, Poland and Slovenia moving the team back into qualifying contention. More impressive displays came in Poland and the Czech Republic where Northern Ireland were unlucky just to draw both games. In between those matches a 2-0 home defeat to Slovakia ended the World Cup dream, but the improved form earned Worthington a new deal.

2010 – The early part of the year was dominated by four friendly defeats in a row. Once the important stuff began though, Worthington pulled off his best win to date as Northern Ireland boss, defeating Slovenia 1-0 in Maribor in the Euro 2012 opener. An encouraging scoreless draw at home to Italy followed, but then came that desperate 1-1 draw in the Faroe Islands which did qualification hopes no favours at all.

2011 – Started with a dismal 3-0 defeat to Scotland in the Celtic Nations Cup, but hopefully brighter days are ahead. Time will tell.

Five Northern Ireland stars of the past have their say

Alan McDonald: “Serbia will be very technically gifted with lots of quality players, so it is going to be a tough test for us. I played with QPR in Europe in Belgrade and the fans there are incredibly passionate and intimidating, therefore it's good that the Northern Ireland boys won't have to face that with the home supporters banned. I believe a draw would be an acceptable result, and if we could nick a win that would be fantastic.”

Gerry Armstrong: “I believe this is a game that we can take something from. In order to do that we have to be better than in the last game against Scotland, but that won’t be hard. We have Steve Davis missing, but they are without key players too, like Nemanja Vidic. Lee Camp making his debut will be interesting, but I remember Jonny Evans’ debut against Spain when he was outstanding. I hope Lee has a game to remember like that.”

Mal Donaghy: “I don’t see anything to fear in this group. I remember playing in our last game in Belgrade, when we got a bit of a doing in a 4-1 defeat. I think we have two psychological advantages going into this game. One is the fact that it is behind closed doors, so the players won’t be subjected to the intimidating atmosphere that I remember. Also, Nemanja Vidic isn’t playing and that has to be a plus for us and a minus for Serbia.”

Jim Magilton: “I believe Northern Ireland can win this game, just as we did in Slovenia, but the players have to believe too. We need to keep the ball as much as possible too. I don’t see the fact that the game is behind closed doors as being an advantage to either team. A fully packed stadium would have been intimidating, but none of the players will have experienced an international in that environment before and it could be difficult to get used to.”

Michael O’Neill: “If Northern Ireland are going to win the game — which we are capable of doing — then the performance needs to be along the same lines as when we won in Slovenia earlier in the campaign. We have to maximise any possession we have and any opportunities that come our way, because as the away team in an international we’re not going to dominate in terms of possession, so ball-retention and what we do with it is important.”

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