Come Saturday night we will know a lot more about Northern Ireland’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup in South Africa. Come Wednesday night the Green and White Army will have a fair idea whether it is even worth dreaming about an African odyssey come the summer of 2010. Put quite simply, if Northern Ireland lose the first two matches of the campaign, then the rest of the group games are merely for FIFA ranking places, we’re not going to the World Cup.
Failing to qualify for South Africa would not, of course, represent abject failure for Nigel Worthington’s squad. Realistically, it would be a fine achievement to top the ‘group within a group’ which also includes Slovenia and Slovakia. Overwhelmingly the Czechs and Poland will be favourites to progress, but in the European Championships we regularly defeated opposition of a similar standard (and better, the eventual champs for goodness sake!) at Windsor Park. Naturally, expectations have risen commensurately.
However, Northern Ireland last commenced a qualifying campaign with an away win in 1962. Whilst I would love to be proved wrong, I don’t think we will put an end to that horrendous run tomorrow. Like many supporters, although I have every faith in David Healy’s abilities, I recognise that he is unlikely to replicate his record breaking achievement of 13 goals in the Euro 2008 qualifying games. Necessarily then, to equal or better our performance in that campaign, other players need to make a significant goalscoring contribution. With the exception of Kyle Lafferty, I don’t see, in the current squad, players who are likely to score those goals.
We began the 2008 qualifiers with Lawrie Sanchez in charge. Lawrie had instilled confidence and belief in his players, with incredible results. In contrast, when Sanchez left to join Fulham and Nigel Worthington took over, although the team drew away to Sweden and enjoyed a fine home win against Denmark, we tumbled from first in the group to third. Worthington has also raised serious questions about his tactics and judgment, omitting Steven Craigan and altering the style of play with which Sanchez had achieved such favourable results. I would have more confidence for the forthcoming games if Sanchez were still in charge.
Nevertheless, our team is now an experienced unit and no opponent will relish playing them, nor will they find it an easy task to break down our resolute defence. Although Craigan will start, and perhaps also McCauley, Worthington could put out a defensive quartet drawn exclusively from the top level of English football, should he so wish, which illustrates demonstrably the strength in depth which we enjoy in that department.
Although playing to this strength might have its appeal, the manager must not set his team up merely to repel Slovakia’s forwards. Worthington will most likely pick his captain Aaron Hughes at right back, with Evans, McCartney and Craigan filling the other defensive berths. Chris Baird could then bolster the rearguard from a position just in front of the two centre halves. If the manager selects his team in this formation, he must also provide support for David Healy up front.
That means deploying Warren Feeney alongside Northern Ireland’s talisman and licensing Davis, and two from Gillespie, Brunt and Clingan to push on and support the front pairing. If Worthington instead elects to leave Healy on his own up front, we are resigned to hoping for another miracle from the Killyleagh messiah. If only big Kyle Lafferty were available, the decision would be so much simpler.