Belfast Telegraph

Nigel's boys can recapture glory of '93

Down memory lane

By Malcolm Brodie

Riga, capital of Latvia, appeared a little down at heel on the evening of June 2 1993. Only a year or so had passed since this Baltic country had gained independence from the Soviet Union.

Diplomatic relations had been resumed with the rest of the world.

That was the scenario the Irish Football Association found itself caught up in when drawn against Latvia in a World Cup qualifying tie at the Daguavas Stadium.

It was a journey into the unknown for few knew the strength of football there.

A handful of Northern Ireland supporters made the trip in contrast to the 2,000-plus troops of the Green and White Army who will make their vocal presence known this Saturday watching "our wee country" battling for three precious European Championship qualifying points.

Northern Ireland's 2-1 win 14 years ago prompted one of the most memorable nights of celebration in Riga's main pub and restaurant. Every member of the squad and the backroom staff as well as the media was sandwiched into it.

'Danny Boy' and other traditional songs got quite a hammering. The Latvians loved it, even the enterprising locals who diplomatically suggested it would be a financial winner to invest in property as the nation was about to expand.

Ironically Northern Ireland's newly-appointed manager Nigel Worthington then with Sheffield Wednesday played a major role at left-back in the triumph. Now his managerial and tactical expertise hopefully will lay the basis of victory and also in Iceland five days later maintaining the challenge to reach the Euro finals for the first time in history. A tall order indeed.

Worthington recalls: "From the moment we kicked off everyone realised this wasn't to be a soft touch. The Latvians were professional in their approach although we scored two goals within the first 15 minutes and they got one back in the second half. Their work rate was high and we had to compete for the entire 90 minutes."

That match yet again underlined how so-called weaker nations must not be underestimated. It was a lesson which Worthington learned frequently in his 65 appearances for Northern Ireland and no doubt one he will convey to his team this weekend.

That 1993 squad was captained by Alan McDonald (QPR), now the Glentoran supremo and Northern Ireland Under-21 assistant coach.

"We found it tough out there," he said. "They had just broken away from the Soviet Union and we had to prepare in the dark. Life has changed a lot since then and so has the quality and make-up of their team."

The Latvian Football Federation became a member of FIFA in 1922 but after annexation by the Soviet Union it was disbanded but was welcomed back to the fold again in 1992 coinciding with independence.

They may struggle, be considered a minnow but in November 2003 against all the odds they staged a comeback to draw 2-2 (aggregate 3-2) with Turkey and qualify for the Euro finals in Portugal. They lost 2-1 to the Czech Republic, held Germany to a scoreless draw and then thrashed 2-1 against the Netherlands. Since then however it has been a downward trend particularly in the current series.

Jim Magilton scored the first goal after four minutes, Gerry Taggart the second in the 15th in that '93 victory. Both believe three points can be picked up and should that happen then who knows, the lads may return to that pub-cum-restaurant to celebrate!

Northern Ireland's line-up: Wright (Newcastle United), Fleming (Barnsley), Worthington (Sheffield Wednesday), Taggart (Barnsley), McDonald (QPR captain), Donaghey (Chelsea), O'Neill (Dundee United), Magilton (Oxford United), Wilson (Notts County), Dowie (Southampton), Hughes (Strasburg). Sub: Quinn (Reading) for O'Neill 85. Not used: Fettis (Hull City), Rowland (Bournemouth), Black (Nottingham Forest), Patterson (Crystal Palace).

Scorers: Latvia: Linards (55). Northern Ireland: Magilton (4), Taggart (15).

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