Belfast Telegraph

Steven Beacom: Northern Ireland expects

The last time Northern Ireland played Azerbaijan at Windsor Park the build up to the game was dominated by the then manager Lawrie Sanchez sending Jeff Whitley and Philip Mulryne home after the pair stupidly broke a curfew.

They missed out on beating Azerbaijan 2-0 when Stuart Elliott and Warren Feeney scored for the home side. Worse, the duo messed up the chance of being involved in the epic 1-0 victory over England a few nights later.

They never played international football again — their club careers went down the pan too.

Whitley would later admit to alcohol and cocaine addiction.

Mulryne moved into the priesthood.

I don't expect current Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill to have to deal with players sneaking back into the team hotel in the middle of the night with Azerbaijan in town again seven years on, though he might think about asking former Manchester United midfielder Mulryne to say a prayer for him as he seeks his first victory as an international manager.

After that excellent 1-1 draw in Portugal last month when the manager's shrewd tactics were carried out to the letter by his inspired players, who kept their shape and discipline, there is expectation that Northern Ireland will beat Azerbaijan in their latest World Cup qualifier tomorrow night.

Expectation. Over the years it's been like a dirty word in our national team's dressing room.

As underdogs we're just fine and can spring a surprise now and then, as shown in Portugal, but give our boys the favourites tag and they wilt like a BBC executive when Newsnight crops up in conversation.

The 1-1 draw at home to Luxembourg two months ago was the latest example in a long line of cock-ups through the decades when victory should have been comfortably secured.

Every Northern Ireland boss has had his Luxembourg, even the great Billy Bingham. The trick is to keep them to a minimum.

Once in a campaign could be construed as careless, but twice would be criminal suggesting that the manager and players had not learnt from the mistakes of last time.

The performance in Porto was near perfect, but as key members of the squad pointed out yesterday, it will be quickly forgotten if they fail to win tomorrow.

Northern Ireland's home record in recent years has been poor. The good news, however, is that it's superior to Azerbaijan's appalling efforts on the road.

Since their last visit here in 2005, Azerbaijan, now managed by German great and failed Scottish boss Bertie Vogts, have played 19 competitive away games losing 17 of them. They've also drawn one and won one — a 2-0 success in Liechtenstein in a World Cup qualifier in 2009. Mind you, Larne could beat Liechtenstein, so it's not much to write home about.

Azerbaijan will be technically efficient and I would have thought well drilled defensively by Vogts, but mentally their form out of Baku will have taken its toll, therefore Northern Ireland must start positively and stay in that frame of mind, unlike against Luxembourg when O'Neill's men got sloppy and slackened off in the second half, allowing themselves to be caught offside far too frequently and with a sucker punch, giving the visitors a late leveller.

This time once we get on top, we have to stay there, be clinical and collect maximum points.

Northern Ireland expects... and rightly so.

Belfast Telegraph


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