Player defection Northern Ireland’s main issue
After all the optimism, the positive start to the Euro 2012 campaign was nothing more than another false dawn.
Following the win in Slovenia and the solid draw at home to the Italians it looked good, particularly as the teams we were jockeying with for position dropped points in the early fixtures.
I always feel that the games around the middle of the campaign are vitally important.
In our last World Cup campaign, back-to-back wins at Windsor Park against Poland and the Slovenians put us very much into contention.
That followed a sluggish start when we took only one point from our first nine.
I felt that the pendulum swung against us at that same point this time around, with the defeat in Belgrade and the stalemate in the return game against Slovenia.
For me, the absence of Kyle Lafferty has proved to be the difference between success and failure for Northern Ireland in this campaign and the last.
Without the Rangers front man, we just seem to lack a physical presence in attack and our record in competitive games with and without Lafferty is certainly notable.
To qualify for a World Cup or Euro Finals you need wins as well as good, solid draws. Until that changes, I think it could be the case that we continue to be competitive up to a point, but that we’ll ultimately come up that little bit short.
The next two years will be pivotal for Northern Ireland football.
We need our international team to be reasonably successful, to retain both interest and pride among the footballing public so that we can continue to bring decent crowds in, particularly encouraging more families into Windsor Park.
The issue of player defections to the FAI continues to rumble on and this is a huge challenge for us all.
The AONISC has continued to work with the Irish FA as we consider steps that can be taken to challenge perceptions and redress what is an unfair situation.
For me, that is the biggest challenge to our local game and must remain our highest priority.
Gary McAllister is spokesperson for Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters’ Clubs