Nigel Worthington’s tactics — or lack of them — have been the cause of much consternation among Northern Ireland fans as they’ve watched the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign fizzle out over the last six months.
From being jeered by the Green and White Army for failing to have a go at Slovenia in the 0-0 draw at Windsor Park back in March, those same supporters turned on the boss last month when his team slumped to an embarrassing 4-1 defeat in Estonia — one of the few countries in Europe with a smaller population than Northern Ireland.
Tonight, Worthington and his players get the chance to exact some sort of revenge when the Estonians come to Windsor Park.
What will worry the fans — in a crowd that is expected to be below the normal figure — is that Worthington has stated that his approach will be the same.
Yet the manager counters any arguments there may be over a need for change by claiming that anything different would leave the team vulnerable to taking another hammering, like they did in Tallinn.
“The tactics against Estonia will be the same as Slovenia away, Italy at home, Poland home and away, Czech Republic home and away and Sweden away,” said Worthington.
“The tactics will be exactly the same as the last four years and the approach will be the same, we’ve got to go out and try to win the game and not concede goals. For us to concede two goals against anyone, we’re chasing the game, let alone four.
“We’re not capable of scoring the goals to turn that around.
“That’s why we set our stall out not to concede because then it only takes one, or maybe two, goals to win the game.
“You can’t defend as a team like we did in Estonia and expect to win games.
“If we go all out and concede one or two then we’re back to square one, so we’ll be controlled, but we will attack and look for goals.”
There has been much negativity since that terrible night in Tallinn when everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Northern Ireland didn’t even score themselves than night, Estonian defender Raio Piiroja putting the ball into his own net to give hope to the travelling supporters.
Suggestions that such negative vibes emanate from the manager himself have been refuted by Worthington.
“Sometimes I wonder where it comes from to be honest,” he said.
“We set up to go out and win games and I’ve explained why we can’t go and concede one or two goals, because we're playing major catch-up.
“We don’t have Gerry Armstrongs, Billy Hamiltons, Norman Whitesides that we had in the past. Then we had three players in the team who were capable of scoring goals.
“We don’t have that luxury and that’s no disrespect to the players that we have.
“We don’t have the David Healy of three years ago. Warren Feeney will get the odd goal, Kyle Lafferty’s in good form at the minute at Rangers, you hope that he’ll click and score goals for his country on a regular basis.
“I always send the players out in a positive frame of mind to look to win the game.”
Worthington’s contract as Northern Ireland manager expires at the end of this year, meaning tonight’s game is the last home match that his current deal covers. Whether a new one is offered remains to be seen.
The only way he can claim a play-off place — which would fully justify a renewal of his contract — can be secured is if Northern Ireland can beat Estonia tonight and then Italy next Tuesday, with Serbia losing both their games at the same time.
That’s high expectation and Worthington, who has been preaching realism in recent times, wants to see the expectancy of fans reined in, particularly after the international retirement of former captain Aaron Hughes.
The consequences of losing top players through injury for one or two games have been there for all to see in previous games; having to do without a proven Premier League defender like Cookstown-man Hughes on a permanent basis is a different and more difficult scenario altogether.
“I think the expectation level has to drop somewhat,” said Worthington. “The loss of Aaron Hughes to Northern Ireland football will be immense.
“For Aaron, who could have had another two good years in the next campaign, to stay on would have been a huge boost to the Northern Ireland international team.”
With such a top class defender in tow maybe the attacking philosophy might have changed.
EXPECTED NORTHERN IRELAND TEAM: Camp, Hodson, Cathcart, McAuley, Baird, Clingan, Davis, McCann, McCourt, Lafferty, Brunt.