I’ve just returned from a couple of days in the lakelands of Fermanagh where my only indulgence in media, new or old, comprised the odd glance at email and some overheard Evening Extra.
I am rather late, therefore, to address the one story which will dwarf all others over the Christmas period. Forget Copenhagen and climate change, disregard ceaseless squabbling over policing and justice, ignore the Chilcot Inquiry’s endless procession of ennobled civil servants. The hot topic to accompany turkey and stuffing, this year, is Lawrie Sanchez and his proposed return as Northern Ireland manager.
The BBC reports that Sanchez is already in discussions with the Irish Football Association. And judging from the interviews which he gave yesterday, the former Fulham boss is prepared to fight hard to replace Nigel Worthington.
Sanchez criticised the fourth place finish which Northern Ireland ultimately achieved in the World Cup qualifiers. He regrets leaving international management to pursue an unsuccessful career in the Premier League. "I loved my time with Northern Ireland and I'd like to finish off what I started”.
Sanchez’ message is carefully calibrated in order to appeal to Northern Ireland fans, over the heads of the IFA. Negotiations to renew the present manager’s contract have stalled and the predecessor hopes to encourage the notion that there is a cost free alternative. Lawrie Sanchez is eager to create a clamour for his reinstatement.
It’s difficult to know how the IFA should react.
Sanchez’ first spell as Northern Ireland manager was an unqualified success. He took over a team which had gone well over 1000 minutes without scoring a goal. By the end of his first qualifying campaign, the goals were flowing and England had been defeated. For the next two years Northern Ireland became practically unbeatable at home. It was a shame that Sanchez left midway through the next set of qualifiers, lured away by the bright lights of the Premier League and Fulham.
Understandably, some supporters will maintain that he cannot be trusted. He may not stay around to finish the job.
Nigel Worthington is substantially higher maintenance than Sanchez, demanding almost twice the salary. However, he has improved as a manager, and his approach to the job is, to a degree, more thorough. The Ballymena man has revamped Northern Ireland’s youth set up. He is a ‘director of football’ for the IFA in the mould of another former manager, Bryan Hamilton.
Worthington’s rein has been blighted by tactical naivety, an inability to make effective substitutions and the indiscipline of certain players. Sanchez runs a tighter ship, demands complete professionalism and loyalty and he is undaunted by reputation. It is difficult to a envisage a lenient response from Lawrie to a pre match booze up of the type which presaged Northern Ireland’s critical World Cup match against Slovakia. Phil Mulryne and Jeff Whitley were swiftly dropped after similar transgressions under Sanchez. Nigel Worthington sought no such sanction.
Football has a long history of disappointing comebacks. However, it’s worth remembering that Billy Bingham’s second spell as Northern Ireland manager saw the team qualify for two World Cups.