Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Back to the future! Retro Northern Ireland away match shows up lack of depth.

With the political calendar so busy over the past number of days, I neglected to post anything about Northern Ireland’s friendly match in Italy. Unfortunately I only managed to watch our second (third?) string eleven succumb to a young Italy line-up on television. It was particularly galling not to be travelling, as the hundred or so strong support which did make it to Pisa harked back to the ‘good old days’ when green shirts didn’t swamp a city but rather sought each other out, and there was a much more collegial feel to the Green and White Army.

It reminded me of a trip to Zurich some years ago, when Lawrie Sanchez’ team managed an honourable goalless draw, or travelling through Ukraine on the night train to Donetsk (above). Call me a curmudgeon if you must, but my feeling is that those occasions were better fun. There was a keener sense of camaraderie amongst Northern Ireland fans, we were often a novelty for locals and, let’s be honest, there were fewer embarrassing characters exhibiting ‘never been out of my own country before’ type behaviours. You tended to encounter the same people on each occasion there was an away trip. Now it’s difficult to arrange even to meet up with the friends you’ve travelled with, because several thousand people have converged upon a destination.

Banishing nostalgia for a moment, to consider what happened on the field on Saturday, the vast majority of regular squad members were unavailable to the manager, who turned to a selection of young players from the Under 21 side, augmented by Irish League semi-professionals. In the circumstances 3-0 was accepted by most experts whose generally expressed view roughly coincided with ‘could have been worse’. To a degree I concur with their analysis, but I also felt that Italy’s understrength team performed well within its capabilities. Predictably, for a Worthington line-up, Northern Ireland was confined to a damage limitation exercise, leaving one isolated striker up front and showing little inclination to claim possession of the football.

In the captain’s role Damian Johnson was exceptional, albeit that he played out of position, at right back. His combative skills might have been better employed in midfield, where Grant McCann and Corey Evans tried in vain to get hold of the ball; worse, despite a lack of pressure from the Italians, on the few occasions that they did have possession, they failed to keep it. Although McCann has shown an aptitude for scoring goals from midfield, I have only once seen him convince from a central role. Against Poland at home he adapted to his position in the heart of midfield well enough, with the consequence that Worthington moved Steve Davis to the left side, for the next match, against Slovenia. That game, more typically, entirely passed McCann by. My view is that he is simply not consistent enough for the central berth and should be used predominantly at left midfield. Clingan, Davis and Johnson can each play central midfield with vastly greater assurance than Grant McCann.

On a happier note, Worthington used two goalkeepers during the 90 minutes on Saturday evening and both acquitted themselves adequately. Tuffey might have done more to prevent the first Italian goal, which was fiercely struck but shouldn’t have beaten the Partick player at the near post. He redeemed himself with a fine penalty save during the second half, which prevented a fourth for the Azzuri. Mannus made one or two smart stops from close range, showing good agility and a capacity to get down quickly and deal with shots close to his body. Rangers’ centre forward, Little, offered another positive. He competed manfully on his own up front, after Healy had departed with a groin strain. And to accord parity to the ‘Old Firm’, McGinn contributed a busy shift after he replaced Healy and moved to the wide berth vacated by Little.

Otherwise there was little to be gleaned from this late season friendly. Although the Irish League players participated to a degree, none looked equipped to claim a regular place in the squad. Some of the under 21s might feature more prominently in the future, after experiencing sustained first team action at their clubs, but they will not dislodge established first team regulars imminently. Even Evans, whose potential has been widely discussed and whose older brother made an instant impact when he made his international debut, looked raw and inexperienced.

Before the crucial World Cup qualifier with Poland, Northern Ireland faces Israel at Windsor Park, in August. Worthington will hope to have a full panel to choose from and, frankly, those who return will be more secure in their positions than they were before the Italy game. Northern Ireland rarely has a wide pool of talent from which to draw and the manager is fortunate to have available a relatively strong group of players currently. The problem is that, whilst it is strong, it is also small and obvious candidates are not yet emerging to potentially replace seasoned performers in the event of injury or retirement. Still, the consolation for long-term supporters is that, should our results deteriorate the crack surrounding away fixtures might well improve. Altogether now, ‘we’re green and we’re white, we’re having a ball, the game’s really shite but it’s football for all!”.

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