My pre season optimism, as regards the Irish League, survived almost fifteen minutes of competitive action, before Ballymena’s flat footed defence allowed Liam Boyce to fire Cliftonville into an early lead at the Showgrounds. The international calendar begins tomorrow, and although Northern Ireland’s World Cup hopes cannot be dented meaningfully until early September, a poor performance against Israel would certainly send a deflated squad to the crucial qualifier in Poland.
Tomorrow’s clash represents crucial preparation for three matches which will define Nigel Worthington’s tenure as manager. It is just about plausible that Northern Ireland could book a place in South Africa over the next two months and there is a slightly more credible chance that a play off berth could be secured. Objective observers would scarcely expect the team to secure the seven points which are almost certainly the minimum required. Northern Ireland’s away record is appalling. We face Poland and the Czech Republic in Chorzow and Prague. Home form is much better, but Slovakia currently tops the group and their muscular style has achieved impressive results.
Nevertheless, Worthington’s side approaches the last three games with its fate (largely) in its own hands. As a fan, my only aspiration is that we go into the final two matches with a mathematical chance of qualification. Playing a tough team like Israel, with a footballing ancestry linked to eastern and central European countries, will focus Northern Irish minds on the task to come.
Fortunately, all the players whose participation Worthington sought have made themselves available. The manager wrote personally to his squad, urging their involvement and emphasising the importance of a friendly fixture, organised on the eve of the club season. The wisdom of selecting Crusaders’ Coates, rather than Manchester United’s Cathcart, might be called into question, but Worthington’s options will largely conform to the selection decisions he must make in the forthcoming World Cup fixtures.
Keep an eye on my Twitter feed for some live thoughts from the match and build up.