Monday, 30 March 2009

Worthy winners overshadowed by off the field violence

From the earliest days of Nigel Worthington’s spell as Northern Ireland manager I have questioned his judgment, his tactical acumen, his perspective on international football and his man management skills. In short, I have publicly doubted whether Worthington possesses any of the credentials which would qualify him to assume the mantle of his predecessor, Lawrie Sanchez.

When Northern Ireland achieved a considerable success under his leadership, defeating Denmark at Windsor Park, I suggested that the victory owed more to residual confidence imbued by the previous manager, rather than any wisdom that the current incumbent had imparted. The team began this World Cup qualifying campaign with two defeats in Slovenia and Slovakia and I felt that my judgment had been vindicated.

Although I do not yet feel ready to replace the ‘Lawrie is our leader’ with ‘Nigel is our leader’ when I belt out ‘we’re not Brazil’ from the stands and although I’m still a confirmed sceptic who will not be scrutinising the family tree for relations in South Africa any time soon, Saturday’s win against Poland was Worthington’s managerial victory, and he thoroughly deserved it.

The team which ran out at Windsor Park, depleted by suspension and injury, was filled with an indefatigable spirit which first manifested itself under Sanchez. Our current manager may have inherited a team, in which that quality was already instilled, but it hasn’t been lost, and he requires credit for maintaining it through some indifferent results.

Northern Ireland needed a win on Saturday and Worthington duly sent out his side prepared to work, to press the opposition and most of all, to attack. Only in the last fifteen minutes did the team begin to retreat. Even when the score was 3-1, it looked likely that our players would score another goal. I have accused Worthington of negative tactics in previous games. He took an impeccably positive approach on Saturday evening.

As for man management, what about Chris Brunt? The left sided player responded to his absence from the starting eleven in San Marino by playing by far his best game for Northern Ireland. Brunt should be congratulated for reacting with a positive attitude to his exclusion and working all the harder after his recall. It says a lot for his professionalism. But it also indicates that the manager understands his player and can get the best out of him.

Whether Worthington can motivate his team to go on and win crucial home games against Slovenia and Slovakia remains to be seen. I certainly have no difficulty acknowledging success where it is deserved, and eating a little humble pie when I am proved wrong.

On a less happy note, most readers will by now know that Saturday’s 3-2 win was somewhat overshadowed by crowd trouble prior to the match. A substantial hooligan element travelled with the Polish supporters, some of whom will be in magistrate’s court this morning. It is always desperately disappointing when violence mars a great sports’ event. I witnessed the police closing both Lisburn Road and Tate’s Avenue for a spell whilst pitched battles took place.

Undoubtedly orchestrated and premeditated determination to engage in hooliganism, from a tiny minority of Poland’s followers, led to scenes, unprecedented in my time watching international football in Belfast. However, there were those, attending the match or otherwise who allowed themselves to be drawn into fighting, with varying degrees of eagerness, from the Northern Ireland side. I condemn their actions unreservedly and with shame.

I hope never again to see incidents of the character of some of those which I saw in South Belfast on Saturday. And I hope those who perpetrated them, on either side, are punished and do not have the opportunity to attend football matches again. They are not wanted by any genuine fan.

Meanwhile the attention of Northern Ireland followers turns to the Slovenia match on Wednesday With Steven Davis and George McCartney set to return, Worthington must decide whether it is appropriate to shuffle his pack, or retain the weekend’s winning team. It is another test of his managerial skill and one which I will, for once, not seek to pre-empt.

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