Tonight Northern Ireland play San Marino, and although Nigel Worthington insists that a scrappy goal accompanied by three points would satisfy him, anything less than a handsome win will do little to persuade supporters that the manager is up to the job.
Worthington was quick to assure fans and media that his charges had performed adequately, despite being defeated 2-0 by a woeful Slovenian outfit on Saturday. He is fooling no-one. Thus far his team have secured one point where seven were eminently winnable. Had Northern Ireland achieved a successful start to the World Cup qualifying campaign, then certainly, three points by any means would be the priority. Instead, Worthington is presiding over a team which is low in confidence, low on goals, low on points and badly needs to get its season kick-started.
Coming off the back of a remarkable European Championship group, there was always a danger that Northern Ireland’s next matches could be anti-climactic. Although there were strong performances throughout the team, the results which Lawrie Sanchez masterminded, drew on the confidence engendered by David Healy’s heroics, and were built on the goals which he scored. It was inevitable that, if Sir Dave’s goals dried up, we would struggle to replicate a strong campaign, which almost saw us qualify for the European Championship finals. Any manager would have found such a situation difficult.
Even allowing for the unpropitious circumstances bequeathed upon Worthington, the manner in which he has executed his duties is questionable. He likes to regard his favoured style of play as a little more cerebral than his predecessor’s. He talks a lot about ‘playing football’. Actually, translated into practice, Worthington’s tactics rob the Northern Ireland team of its robust edge, whilst accruing no dividend in terms of positivity, by way of compensation. They are caught between two stools.
Sanchez’ side had a rugged edge which enabled them to battle out results, particularly away from home, even when goals were hard to come by. Under Worthington the team looks both anaemic, and unwilling to attack. It is a worrying combination.
Even with two strikers up front, including the combative Lafferty, Northern Ireland struggle to provide them with service. Admittedly Worthington has been hamstrung by Keith Gillespie’s lack of match fitness. He is, after all, the most natural winger available to the manager and, frozen out at Sheffield United, he simply doesn’t look capable of the thrusting runs and wicked crosses of which he is undoubtedly capable. But why did Worthington replace Grant McCann with a left back, Ryan McGivern, on Saturday, when the match was crying out for some pace and attacking intent? For this lack of adventure alone, the manager was asking to be punished. Slovenia duly obliged.
Why has Worthington’s one change to the squad for San Marino been drafting in defensive midfielder Michael Gault, rather than a winger such as Ivan Sproule? These lapses in judgment have proved too frequent to write off. The manager seems intent on selecting Linfield players for his squad, whether they meet tactical requirements and whether or not they are good enough. Perhaps his strategy is to seek friends in at least one quarter.
In other quarters Worthington’s friends are rapidly dwindling. I was sceptical about his appointment from the beginning. Less and less frequently do I hear anyone springing to his defence. If Northern Ireland do not win tonight, and win well, I believe yet more people will reappraise their support for the manager.