Belfast Telegraph

Steven Beacom: McCourt can be ace in our pack - if boss picks him

In many ways it is remarkable that Northern Ireland are still in with a chance of qualifying for the 2012 European Championship finals.

We have taken just two points from the last nine, and three from the last 12, yet by winning our game in hand it’s possible that we could find ourselves in second place behind runaway group leaders Italy!

It’s unbelievable really, given at the halfways stage of the qualifying campaign, Nigel Worthington’s side have scored the same number of goals as the Faroe Islands.

On the flip side, we have conceded the same number — just three. In Group C only the Italians, who enjoy keeping clean sheets more than scoring, have a better defensive record.

So at the back, even though players are being asked to be square pegs in round holes, all seems well.

Due to the squad limitations, manager Worthington has to use Premier League centre-backs Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart at full-back.

In the recent games against Serbia, which we lost 2-1, and at home to Slovenia (0-0 draw), they did decent jobs.

Between them Gareth McAuley excelled, playing two of his best games for Northern Ireland.

Scoring a super header in Belgrade, he was made captain for the visit of Slovenia to Belfast and he rose to the occasion.

He had different partners in those games, with Aaron Hughes and Stephen Craigan, once again not letting the side down.

Behind them was new goalkeeper Lee Camp, who already, after just two caps, looks like nailing down the number one spot for years to come.

Maik Taylor is experienced and wise enough to know that, if fit, Nottingham Forest’s Camp will be first choice now.

Mind you, it will be useful to have the classy 39-year-old in reserve should Camp get injured or suspended.

Worthington can be pleased then about the defensive element of his side.

Yes, we would love to have raiding full-backs, a la Cafu and Roberto Carlos, but we’ve never really been that type of team.

It’s further forward where the problems lie.

Worthington was hampered in midfield by not having Steve Davis available due to injury for the energy sapping double header.

The Rangers midfielder is our best player and when he’s not available his guile and ability to create something from nothing is badly missed.

More so when Kyle Lafferty is out too, which was the case against Slovenia.

Without those two trump cards, you need another ace in the pack and as the Kop pointed out in vociferous fashion on Tuesday night, Paddy McCourt is that man.

It was a shame that the Celtic star only saw nine minutes of action against a Slovenia side, who while comfortable in possession in the middle of the park, looked fragile at the back.

They weren’t tested nearly enough.

McCourt, with his unpredictability and ability to leave defenders in his wake, could have changed that in a game which was there for the taking if Northern Ireland had shown more adventure in attack.

All is not lost though because with Serbia and Estonia drawing in Tallinn, no-one made any ground in the race for second.

There are five games left for Northern Ireland, starting at home to the Faroe Islands in August.

With Chris Brunt suspended, surely that would be the perfect time to play McCourt from the first whistle and while we’re at it two up front, Lafferty and David Healy or Warren Feeney, who literally gave blood for the cause on Tuesday night.

The Faroes will pack the defence and it might just need the invention that McCourt can provide to unlock the door, before we can go to town and help our goal difference.

We also have two games coming up against Estonia, where four points could be gained and Italy away in the final match, when a draw is the best we could probably hope for even with the Azzurri easing off having qualified by then.

If eight points are amassed from those four matches and results continue to go the way they have in the other group games, everything will hinge on the home match with Serbia on September 2.

The bottom line is we’ll have to win it, and therefore have to go for broke a bit more.

Worthington came in for some stick from the fans after the scoreless draw against Slovenia, with many suggesting that there was a lack of ambition in the manager’s tactics.

This, even though he was missing key players.

The feeling amongst the fans is that they fear Nigel believes slow and steady will win the race for runners-up spot. The time has come for us to begin our sprint to the finish.

Belfast Telegraph


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