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The most pointless IFA tour ever?

Can you imagine what it would have been like? World Cup fever gripping the country. Towns and cities across Northern Ireland bedecked in green and white bunting, flags and banners, the place coming to a standstill at match time and everything that the Irish FA could have either got a badge onto or managed to order in green and white would have been for sale.

Oh yeah, and Nigel Worthington would have had so many players wanting to go that he could have taken two 23-man squads.

Yes, it would have been fantastic if Northern Ireland had been preparing to head to South Africa for the World Cup — the greatest show on earth.

South America for a friendly obviously isn’t quite as attractive to the big name players like Maik Taylor, Aaron Hughes, George McCartney, Chris Brunt, Kyle Lafferty and David Healy.

Hence the manager has had to revert to calling on a schoolboy — 17-year-old Johnny Gorman who combines his A Levels with playing for Wolves — to make up a 17-man squad to take on a trip to the USA and Chile.

That’s 17 players of which only a handful can realistically expect to be in the squad when the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign kicks-off away to Slovenia in September.

Only one man in the squad has ever made an English Premier League appearance. Alan Blayney played three times for Southampton six years ago, but he’s never going to do that again. Earlier in the season he wasn’t even first choice at Linfield.

Having to go all the way to America to play Turkey seems a strange decision and could we not have rolled out the welcome mat to Chile at Windsor Park as a stop-over on their way to South Africa? Or are home matches off the agenda?

Supposedly last summer’s trip to Italy — when there were slightly more regular squad members available — was worthwhile, but where was the value?

At the time the sum the IFA banked for playing the game was claimed to have been £200,000 or more. As time has passed that has dwindled to between £40,000 and £60,000, so it wasn’t all that lucrative.

Player wise Johnny Tuffey showed that he is an able deputy to Maik Taylor, but as far as being ready to unseat him as first choice, that is as long way off yet.

Chris Casement, Colin Coates, Robert Garrett, Stephen Carson, Martin Donnelly, Shane Ferguson and James Lawrie all made debuts that night, but until this tour none have been close to making a second appearance and their chances of being handed a start in a qualifier — ever in some cases — are somewhere between remote and zero.

Corry Evans made his debut that night too and he has gone on to add another cap, but it’s a case of when rather than if he’ll make an impact on the international stage — and it always has been that way. All the appearance in Italy did was tell everyone what they already knew; that he’s going to be a top player in the green shirt for at least the next decade.

Who will emerge this time?

The player with probably the biggest chance is defender Rory McArdle after last week agreeing a move to Aberdeen. Playing in the Scottish Premier League will be a massive boost to his international chances, but with Stephen Craigan, Aaron Hughes and Jonny Evans in his way it’ll still be tough, so for those not already in the squad it’ll be interesting to see how long it takes even one to add another cap after Sunday’s game in Chile.

That’s when we’ll know the real value of this tour and whether it’s been a pointless exercise or not.

No points for these matches, so what’s the point in going?

Money doesn’t come into it. Player-wise money doesn’t play a part in international football because you can’t go out and buy anyone and the IFA’s bank balance will never win a point, let alone three. No, only when two or three players who are out in America at present can boast a caps total running into double figures will we be able to see any true worth in the venture.

Last year in Italy and this week’s trip to the Americas have done something, though. The games have given Irish League players an opportunity to experience international football that they would never have had otherwise.

Kevin Braniff and Jamie Mulgrew are two of the most talented players in the local game, but are they international class? No.

Harsh maybe — and I rate them both very highly in terms of the local game — but it’s true.

We all like to think that our local game is a good product — and I constantly argue that it is — but when there are half a dozen Irish League players in an international squad then you know it’s vastly understrength.

Northern Ireland tours of the past

Australia Tour — 1980

The furthest a Northern Ireland team has ever travelled for a game — and that’s unlikely to change in the near future. The Irish FA’s centenary tour consisted of three games in a week against the Aussies — who were nowhere near the kind of top class team they are nowadays — in three different cities. Two wins, a draw and five different goalscorers meant positives weren’t that hard to find. There was also a non-international friendly on the tour when caps weren’t awarded. The fact that Colin McCurdy of Linfield scored the final goal of the tour might well be an indication of the strength of the opposition though.

American Tour — 1994

Bryan Hamilton loved his ventures across the globe when he was manager of Northern Ireland and on this, the first of three trips he would take the team on in the space of four years, brought two games against teams who were preparing for the World Cup in the USA later that month. A 2-0 defeat to Colombia and a 3-0 reverse against Mexico were the final two games in Mal Donaghy’s international career. Neil Lennon made his debut on the trip as did George O’Boyle and Steve Lomas also gained experience after winning his first two caps before the tour.

Canada Cup — 1995

Things didn’t get any better for Hamilton when he took the team back to North America 12 months later. Defeats to Canada and Chile didn’t just do damage on this venture, team spirit was also wrecked ahead of what proved to be a fatal defeat at home to Latvia a couple of weeks later — a result which ruined hopes of qualifying for Euro 96 in England. Positives? The introduction of Gerard McMahon to the international stage was as close as you’ll find to one.

Thailand Trip — 1997

This tour was supposed to be for three games, then two and it was shelved when only one game against Thailand was on the agenda. In the end the trip went ahead with just that one game against the Thais, which ended in a dismal 0-0 draw on Roy Carroll’s international debut. The players weren’t complaining as they were rewarded with a week-long holiday in the Thai resort of Phukett.

Caribbean Tour — 2004

Memorable for David Healy breaking the international scoring record against Trinidad & Tobago. We couldn’t beat Barbados though — who had stepped in as late opponents after Jamaica — a much stronger team who still had a lot of the 1998 World Cup team — had arranged a game in London.

USA Trip — 2007

A few familiar faces were missing on this trip. Aaron Hughes, David Healy and Maik Taylor all opted out of the games against Uruguay and Romania. In the days of wall-to-wall television coverage of virtually every match that is played, these two weren’t available anywhere.

A worthwhile venture for Northern Ireland, though, due to the emergence of Sammy Clingan and Kyle Lafferty onto the international stage. Other new caps Jeff Hughes and Mark Hughes — not related — haven’t been seen since.

Belfast Telegraph