Belfast Telegraph

Now bring on the World

Euro dream may be over but Northern Ireland have bigger fish to fry

By Steven Beacom in Gran Canaria

One dream is over for Northern Ireland but come Sunday another will begin when the World Cup draw takes place in South Africa.

The Northern Ireland players flew home to different destinations around the United Kingdom today desperately disappointed that they would not be competing in the European Championship finals after a 1-0 defeat to Spain last night.

But on the up side, they left Gran Canaria with hopes high of making the biggest show of them all.

Northern Ireland finished third in their Euro 2008 qualifying group meaning they will have a higher seeding for the World Cup qualifying draw which is held at the weekend in Durban ahead of the 2010 finals.

But more important than that their wonderful campaign has given everyone involved with the team a real surge in confidence for the future and a belief that they CAN qualify for the glamour stages of a major tournament.

Striker Kyle Lafferty summed that feeling up, saying: "We just have to get our heads down now and look towards the World Cup qualifiers.

"The Euro 2008 campaign has given us belief that we can go and qualify for a major finals."

Lafferty came off the bench last night in a match dominated by Spain, who showed that they will be a threat in Austria and Switzerland next year.

The Spanish topped Group F with Sweden, who beat Latvia 2-1, finishing in second ahead of Northern Ireland and Denmark.

It was a tough group to qualify from and for Northern Ireland to still be in with a chance of making it with just one game left ranks as a fantastic achievement.

In truth they didn't deserve to get anything from the encounter in Gran Canaria, such was Spain's superiority, but when the only goal of the game arrived it owed everything to a large slice of luck for the home side.

Barcelona superstar Xavi smashed in a long range effort which was deflected off Stephen Craigan and into the net.

Xavi will claim it, but it could be considered an own goal which would mean Northern Ireland scored three of those in the campaign - all of which led to crucial defeats.

Talk about kicking yourself in the teeth.

That said, Northern Ireland can feel proud of their footballers for providing so much entertainment and joy in a wonderful series of matches that saw our wee country beat the might of Spain, Sweden and Denmark at Windsor Park.

And of course the genius that is David Healy scored a record breaking 13 goals in the process.

He will be the main man once again when the World Cup qualifiers begin.

Before they do Northern Ireland will have several friendlies, possibly including a trip to China next summer which could prove financially beneficial to the Irish FA.

It's unlikely many senior players will be on that journey, but everyone will want to be involved in the proposed Celtic Cup, which is set to feature Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland as well as Northern Ireland and possibly now England.

There won't be many differences in terms of playing personnel, but the manager could change again.

Nigel Worthington, who replaced Lawrie Sanchez midway through the Euro 2008 campaign, will hold talks with the IFA next week. A new contract will be there waiting to be signed if the Ballymena man wants to stick around and the draw may have a bearing on his decision.

Belfast Telegraph


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