Published: Happy Days issue 7 and StateOfTheGame.co.uk, 7th September 2006, http://stateofthegame.co.uk/2006/09/07/northern-ireland-consistent-inconsitency/
After the amazing turnaround performed by Lawrie Sanchez over the course of a few days one can’t help but think we’ve been here before, where we have performed well against the so called ‘big teams’ while perhaps underachieved against teams that the fans expect to beat. How can the same squad of players that were humbly beaten by Iceland, ranked 34 places below them in the FIFA rankings beat one of the top teams in the world just four days later? It is a case of consistent inconsistency which makes supporting Northern Ireland so frustrating. You only have to think back to last year as we scraped a 1-1 draw against lowly Malta just three weeks before the famous victory over England. However, this unpredictability is not new to supporters of the boys in green. Throughout the last 40 years of qualification, Northern Ireland have thrived on the underdogs tag, but struggled with the thought of being favourites.
In qualifying for the 1966 World Cup, Northern Ireland finished second in a 4 team group to Switzerland. The Swiss team only lost one game in that group – Against Northern Ireland. Albania who finished bottom of the group lost every game bar one, where they gained a draw – Against Northern Ireland. Incidentally if Northern Ireland had succeeded in defeating Albania in this the final game, it would have been us and not the Swiss who would have been playing in the final tournament in England. In the 1974 World Cup campaign, Cyprus finished bottom in group 6 conceding 14 goals and scoring just one; enough to secure their only victory over they beat Terry Neill’s men.
In the next set of qualifiers for the European campaign Yugoslavia won five and lost one – Against us. Norway lost five and won once – Against us. The following campaign saw a mighty point away from home against would-be World Cup finalists Holland, but we managed to lose to Iceland in Reykjavik as they gained their only points of the campaign.
The irregularity of results would continue throughout the golden era of the 1980s. Everyone knows that in trying to qualify for the 1984 European championships we beat West Germany home and away, and remain the only team to do so.
Yet in that same campaign, we lost to then whipping boys Turkey and only managed a draw in Albania. An extra point from either game would have seen us qualify. Two years later we found ourselves on the edge of our seats to see if Northern Ireland would earn the point at Wembley that was needed to go to the World Cup finals in Mexico. Of course we know they did, but Pat Jennings’ heroics and the fan’s pounding hearts could have been spared if we had previously beaten Turkey who finished bottom of the group yielding 24 goals in the process and managing only one point, against us.
Why could Northern Ireland raise their game against the world elite but struggle against teams considered much poorer? The 1990s continued to see contrasting results in the same campaign. A home draw with the modest Faroe Islands followed a draw against eventual Euro ‘92 winners Denmark. In trying to qualify for the same competition four years later a draw in Portugal was undermined by a defeat at home to Latvia.
And who can forget Gerry Taggart’s goal earning us a point against the mighty Germans in Nuremburg, while who would want to remember a 1-1 draw with ordinary Armenia the month before. Even in our last European Championship campaign with the infamous goal drought, Spain only took one point from Windsor Park while Armenia stole all three.
So don’t worry Lawrie, the contrasting results seen in your era are not a new thing for us. Over the last forty years we’ve become used to not knowing what will happen. Thanks to the victory over the Spanish, we’ll all too easily forget the debacle against Iceland. After all, thinking back to the last time we beat Spain in 1982, who can remember what the result was in the game before? A 1-1 draw with Honduras. We forget the bad times, but we’ll cherish the good times. And the good times never seemed so good.