Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's whole new ball game

By Steven Beacom

So, come 2018 we'll all be off to Russia to cheer on Northern Ireland in the World Cup finals.

Well, that's what the Irish FA believe, according to their new Strategic Plan, unveiled in the Long Gallery at Stormont yesterday.

The House on the Hill has heard plenty of spin through the decades.

It'll take us five years to find out if this was more of the same.

What we know already is that after the largely disappointing results of recent years, should Northern Ireland manage to reach the finals of a major tournament in the time suggested by the IFA, it will be one of the greatest sporting achievements our wee country has ever known.

A host of politicians took a genuine interest yesterday in their nation's football future, turning up to listen to IFA President Jim Shaw and Chief Executive Patrick Nelson outline a vision for the sport, before national team manager Michael O'Neill and the IFA's Elite Performance Director Jim Magilton gave their thoughts on moving the game forward here.

The Strategic Plan called 'We're Not Brazil...We're Northern Ireland' is trumpeted by the IFA as the 'blueprint for success in the next five years' and a 'roadmap to the continuing fulfilment of our vision to promote, foster and develop football for all in Northern Ireland.'

Putting some meat on those bones, the foundations of the strategy are six long term objectives across three areas: International, Domestic and Grassroots.

Those objectives are:

Qualify for a major tournament

Deliver a National Stadium

Foster a balanced, flourishing senior domestic game

Create a healthy domestic game at all levels

Reach beyond the game

Build a culture of lifelong participation in football

The line that stands out in the 48 page document, which has twins and Northern Ireland fans Christian and Mason King pictured on the front and back, relates to the IFA's 'confidence that by 2018 we will have produced a team who can qualify for an international tournament.'

Obviously the IFA admit there is much work to do before then and outline their plans to make it happen, but to put a date on the nation's next appearance at a major finals came as a shock.

In the 133-year history of the IFA such bullish statements have not been the norm.

It certainly puts the heat on everyone at the Association to deliver.

Chief Executive Nelson even went as far to say that there was a 'big chance' for Northern Ireland to reach Euro 2016, let alone the World Cup in 2018.

Nelson added that "by publishing this document we know that the footballing family can hold us to account over the next few years."

It sure can Patrick.

Bearing in mind Northern Ireland have struggled in the last two qualifying campaigns, finishing fifth in six team groups on both occasions, it will take a mighty improvement to challenge for a place at the glamour stages of tournaments.

O'Neill, who recently agreed a two-year contract extension with the IFA, said: "Qualifying is certainly an ambition of mine. For Northern Ireland to qualify for a major tournament though is very difficult and it is a huge challenge for everyone involved.

"At this point in time we are at a stage where fewer and fewer players from Northern Ireland are playing in the professional game and we have to address that situation.

"What I have found is that there are a lot of good people working in football in this country, but they have to come together for the betterment of the sport as a whole in Northern Ireland. Petty squabbles have to be left alone and we all must move forward as one."

Magilton, labelled a world-class Elite Performance Director in the document, added: "Talent identification is key. Our aim is to get our most talented players faster and make sure we have the right structures in place to develop them and help them make it in the professional game which in turn will help the Northern Ireland team."

Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, who attended the launch, said: "I am pleased this strategy sets goals for football at all levels, as well as targets for participation and development. From the new stadium at Windsor Park through to community teams and issues off the pitch, it is an important document."

It sure is and one that looks good on paper.

Whether the Northern Ireland team can deliver on the pitch and make it to the World Cup or Euro finals remains to be seen.

Belfast Telegraph


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