Thursday, 7 February 2008
Worthington learns little in Windsor friendly
Northern Ireland succumbed 1-0 to Bulgaria last night in a predictably lacklustre friendly at Windsor Park. Martin Petrov, who was the pick of the Bulgarian side, forced a Johnny Evans own goal following a characteristically forceful run from the left flank. Despite chances for Kyle Lafferty and Steven Craigan, Northern Ireland were unable to respond and indeed at times Bulgaria looked more likely to add to their lead.
On the occasion of a friendly match such as this it was inevitable that Nigel Worthington would take the opportunity to experiment with different personnel and indeed three substitutions were made at half-time, with three more to come. Two of these substitutes were gratuitous nonsense as Linfield’s Thompson and Mannus were introduced in order to court the acclaim of their club supporters. Whether Worthington would have learned anything which he should not have ascertained already is arguable.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of last night’s opening exchanges was the continuing vulnerability of the defence in the absence of Steven Craigan. Northern Ireland made as many problems for themselves as were created by the Bulgarians. In the first half George McCartney had been the pick of the defenders, with Evans struggling in the air and being caught on the ball on a number of occasions, Hughes low on confidence and Gareth McAuley well out of his depth and frequently out of position. It was McAuley who failed to match Petrov after the defender had beaten Keith Gillespie when Bulgaria scored their goal.
At half time Worthington withdraw Evans to be replaced by Craigan and decided to replace McCartney with Baird, unaccountably leaving McAuley on for the full 90 minutes. Craigan steadied the ship considerably assuming his established role alongside Aaron Hughes. Baird was solid enough at left back but he should have been playing his more accustomed role on the right hand side where his mobility would have been in stark contrast to the lumbering McAuley.
Northern Ireland’s midfield were functioning with a certain degree of lethargy last night. Damien Johnson made a welcome return, but he looked a little off the pace and on a number of occasions was made to look silly by the appalling state of the pitch. In contrast Sammy Clingan appears more confident and assured with every match. He is a skilful and hard working playmaker and it is incredible that he is as yet not playing at a higher level in England. Keith Gillespie had a forgettable night by his standards and Brunt provided his usual mix of devilish delivery blended with occasional frustrating ineptitude. Steven Davis replaced Johnson at half-time and provided more fizz and purpose in the middle of the park.
Predictably Healy provided the most potent threat up front performing with his customary vigour and purpose. Lafferty alongside him unsettled the Bulgarians with his work-rate and aerial ability, although he might have done better on a couple of occasions, when Brunt provided perfectly sculpted left win crosses that just ached to be headed into the net. Certainly the visitors would have been relieved when Laffs departed on the hour to be replaced by Martin Patterson. Patterson was busy and nippy but failed to make any substantial impact. Token spide Thompson replaced Gillespie towards the end and conspicuously made one positive contribution which was greeted by some of the crowd as if a goal had been scored. He pushed in front of the right full back and fell on his face, thus being awarded a free kick. More typical was a diagonal run into touch executed moments before. We do not need another look at him. He is not good enough.
If this friendly has taught the manager anything, surely it must be that Steven Craigan is a vital component of his defence! In my view the match did more to reaffirm the status of established players rather than boost the credentials of those on the margin.