Consistent Inconsistency

September 7, 2006

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.

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That night against Spain

September 5, 2006

Published: Happy Days issue 6 and StateOfTheGame.co.uk, 5th September 2006, http://stateofthegame.co.uk/2006/09/05/that-night-against-spain/

No, not that night. Gerry Armstrong’s goal has its place in history and deservedly so. It ranks as one of the greatest World Cup shocks along with North Korea’s 1-0 win over Italy in 1950, and Cameroon’s opening day humbling of defending World Champions Argentina at Italia ‘90. We’ve seen the goal countless times, and will see it a few more in this next set of qualifiers on the obligatory BBC loop that runs its reel every time we’ve played Spain in the last 25 years or so. And that’s been a few.
Since that night in Valencia we have played the Spanish no fewer than 10 times, drawing three and losing seven.
It’s one of those ties that I want to bring you back to now.
11th June 2003. Northern Ireland 0 Spain 0.
Confidence wasn’t exactly high on the agenda upon entering Windsor that night. The infamous goal drought was now well and truly in swing. The players had finished a long season with their clubs and hadn’t seen competitive football for over a month. Two of the starting 11 (Chris Baird and Tommy Doherty) were earning only their second caps.
This was a full strength Spanish team who we had succumbed to twice in the previous 14 months, shipping eight goals in the process. This was a team and a manager who were starting to receive criticism from both the press and the fans. It seemed like there wasn?t a bit of confidence in the stands that night. But boy was there plenty on the pitch.
Roared on by a crowd who could do nothing but sing and shout, buoyed by some desperate defending and encouraged by a majestic performance from Maik Taylor in what was arguably his best performance in the shirt (rivaled by Warsaw 2005) as we watched him defy gravity and sense time and again to continually frustrate the Spanish Armada.
Raul, Morientes, Baraja and co. just couldn’t find the breakthrough. Northern Ireland had their chances too. Tommy Doherty saw his searing drive tipped over the bar and Andy Smith had a glorious chance when put through by Healy but with the team having gone the previous nine games without finding the net the pressure got to the Lisburn lad.
We didn’t care. This was a famous result. For the younger generation, this was our Valencia. Surely our greatest result since Gerry Taggart’s goal got Our Wee Country a result in Nuremburg against the Germans some 7 years earlier.
The Spanish flew out of Aldergrove dejected. They would have to settle for second place in the group and qualify for the European Championships in next door Portugal via a playoff. The winners of Group 7 were Greece. Remember how they did at Euro 2004?
Here’s to the underdog.


Northern Ireland v Iceland Match Report

September 2, 2006

Published: Happy Days Issue 7

Northern Ireland 0 Iceland 3

The last time Lawrie Sanchez started an International qualifying campaign, Northern Ireland went into their first home game backed to the hilt by fans and media for a victory against Poland. They lost 3-0 and the hyper-inflated optimism burst quicker than a packet of crisps under Jim Boyce’s chair. Two years later and you couldn’t help but feel a sense of Déjà vu. Over talked and under performing, the team trudged off at half time to a chorus of boos, after an Eidur Gudjohnsen inspired Iceland scored three goals against a powerless Maik Taylor. It was a far cry from the last time these two teams met in Belfast, with Northern Ireland winning 3-0, goals coming courtesy of David Healy, Michael Hughes and debutant George McCartney. How we could have used the latter in this match at left back. Tony Capaldi will forever be remembered for his performance against Wales in 2004, but he simply is not a left back and time and time again against the Icelanders he got caught cold in his positioning.

Iceland had done their homework on Capaldi, and it invariably led to the first goal when Stephen Craigan suddenly found himself having to contend with two strikers, and Gunnar Thorvaldsson poked home to a loud silence at Windsor. Northern Ireland rallied and continued to play well, stringing passes across midfield and creating half chances. They were dealt another blow on 20 minutes however when a poor Joey Gudjonnson corner somehow found its way through a mêlée of defenders to the unmarked Herman Hreidarsson and the Charlton defender slammed home past the hapless Taylor. If Northern Ireland’s defence looked scared, they showed it by staying away from Gudjohnsen who was the instigator in this humbling, and the former Chelsea striker stroked in a third for the visitors on 37 minutes. It was a slice of fortune for Iceland, who just three minutes earlier had a Stuart Elliot free-kick to clear off the line, as Northern Ireland sought to find a way back into the match.

Whilst the first half yielded a disappointing result, it held elements of a positive performance. However, come the second half the heads had clearly dropped and the team looked happy to settle for ensuring that no more goals would be leaked. Unsurprisingly, Iceland too were happy to sit on their comfortable margin and the second half was a somewhat uninspiring affair. The home fans did have something to cheer about briefly, but a well worked Healy goal from a set piece on the hour was ruled out for a push by Elliot. Instead of entertainment on the pitch, the Windsor faithful watched with bemusement Sanchez’s tactical-nous. Kyle Lafferty came on for Elliot, and played a spell out on the left wing before swapping with Gillespie. They were positions that neither player looked comfortable in, as Sanchez seemed already to be looking towards the Spain game and using the second half as some sort of tactical experiment. The ineffective James Quinn who was showing the effects of a pre season where the only club he was in contact with was the chocolate biscuit, eventually plodded off on 83 minutes to give Warren Feeney his obligatory 7 minutes of game time. The final whistle eventually sounded to end the tedious contest with fans leaving dreading the visit of mighty Spain just four days later.

Much criticism was levelled at Sanchez and his players in the days following and although it was not undeserving for a lacklustre performance, it is unfair to expect players to adhere to unrealistic expectations of beating teams such as Iceland easily. Unless of course, it’s the local frozen food shop’s 5-a-side


European Championship Group F Preview

September 1, 2006

Published: StateOfTheGame.co.uk, 1st September 2006, http://stateofthegame.co.uk/2006/09/01/euro-group-f-preview/

Robin Peake runs a low down on who can block Northern Ireland’s path to Austria and Switzerland.

Country: Sweden
FIFA Ranking: 20
Odds to qualify: 9/4
N.Ireland’s record against: P5 W2 D0 L3 F7 A5
Last game against N.I: 0-1 (Gothenburg, 3.6.81)
After a timid exit to the World Cup in June, Sweden will be out to prove that they deserve to be the top seed in this group. Yet Lawrie Sanchez has reason to be optimistic ahead of meeting Sweden. Their only world class player Henrik Larsson has retired from international football (again) and recent results suggest the team is on the decline. Before reaching the World Cup they were thrashed 3-0 in Dublin in Steve Staunton’s first match in charge and a shaky start to the tournament saw the dogged tenacity of Trinidad and Tobago earn a well deserved point by producing a tactically astute performance which Lawrie and co. can take great comfort in. Traditionally strong in defence, their strikers, in particular Ibrahimovic, will need to start to live up to their billing if Sweden are to qualify.
Key player: Olaf Mellberg

Country: Spain
FIFA Ranking: 7
Odds to qualify: 4/5
N.Ireland’s record against: P16 W1 D5 L10 F8 A35
Last game against N.I: 0-0 (Belfast, 11.6.03)
At 6/1 to win the tournament outright in two years time, Spain are certainly a force to be reckoned with on paper. However, turning potential into performance has always been their greatest problem, particularly on the big stage as millions watched them go out with a whimper in the second round of the World Cup to an ageing French team. Nevertheless, Spain have a history of easing through qualification: Since 1974 they have only missed one major tournament. How Northern Ireland fare against them may depend on how much input the recently resigned Gerry Armstrong has with his immense knowledge of Spanish football, but don’t expect a repeat of the famous victory in Valencia ?82 as Spain march towards the top of the group.
Key player: Fernando Torres

Country: Denmark
FIFA Ranking: 17
Odds to qualify: 3/1
N.Ireland’s record against: P9 W1 D4 L4 F7 A13
Last game against N.I: 1-1 (Copenhagen 1.9.01)
Many Danish players have made their mark in Britain over the years: Schmeichel, the Laudrup brothers, Gravesen, Rommedahl. But it is two who haven’t who perhaps pose the greatest threat in this Danish team. John Dahl Tomasson was a flop at Newcastle but since moving on to Feyenoord, Milan and now Stuttgart he has rediscovered the golden touch that evaded him during his one year stint on Tyneside. And worryingly for Northern Ireland supporters, the golden touch includes international football where he has scored 38 goals in 79 appearances, roughly a goal every other game. His strike partner for these qualifiers may well be another striker who hasn’t made his name in Britain yet. Niklas Bendtner who is on the books at Arsenal but currently on loan to Birmingham City scored on his international debut in the 2-0 victory over Poland this month. And with 2 goals for the Midlands club already this season, things look bright for the 18 year old. The Green and White Army will hope that fellow team-mates Maik Taylor and Damien Johnson can warn their international colleagues fully.
Key player: Jon Dahl Tomasson

Country: Latvia
FIFA Ranking: 78
Odds to qualify: 33/1
N.Ireland’s record against: P4 W3 D0 L1 F6 A3
Last game against N.I: 1-2 (Belfast, 7.6.95)
The country which dashed Northern Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for Euro ‘96 managed to qualify for (and give a good account of themselves) the last European Championships. However, a lot can change in football in the space of a qualifying campaign as Northern Ireland fans will testify. A Latvian side built on discipline in Portugal two years ago conceded nearly two goals a game in their last qualifying campaign and it was only for the saving grace of having Luxembourg and Liechtenstein in the same group that bumped up their points tally to a respectable 15. Whilst Marian Pahars is a familiar name to Southampton fans, an injury prone 30 year old should not strike fear into Sanchez’s heart. Expect this campaign to be one of rebuilding for the Latvians.
Key player: Maris Verpakovskis

Country: Iceland
FIFA Ranking: 106
Odds to qualify: 100/1
N.Ireland’s record against: P4 W2 D0 L2 F5 A2
Last game against N.I: 3-0 (Belfast, 5.9.01)
While Northern Ireland were gaining some much needed confidence from a victory over Finland, Iceland were holding Spain to a goalless draw in Reykjavik as Raul collected his 100th cap. Astonishingly, the result was achieved against a team ranked 99 places higher than them without their captain and most recognisable player, Eidur Gudjohnsen who ironically requested to withdraw so he could play for his new club Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup. Make no doubt about it, Reykjavik has seen some wonderful results over the last few years (wins over Sweden, Italy, Russia, the Czech Republic and draws against Germany and France) but it is on their travels that Iceland have traditionally struggled. Hence why a win for Northern Ireland on Saturday is so important and anything else can be classed as a disappointment. Much of this will depend on Maik Taylor and the back four as they fend off not just Gudjohnsen but Gunnar Heidar Thorvaldsson, top scorer in the Swedish Premiership last season and now with Hannover 96. Some minor injuries and a lack of competitive action so far may take the edge of his game, but a repeat of defensive mistakes seen in opening day against Poland 2 years ago is not an option with a striker of his quality around
Key player: Gunnar Heidar Thorvaldsson

Country: Liechtenstein
FIFA Ranking: 124
Odds to qualify: 1000/1
N.Ireland’s record against: P3 W2 D1 L0 F8 A1
Last game against N.I: 0-0 (Vaduz, 27.03.02)
The only team in the group with a lower seeding than Northern Ireland, they still cannot afford to be taken lightly. The last time the two teams met it was the beginning of a 13 game goal drought. Whilst that is unlikely to be the same again, Northern Ireland fans shouldn’t expect goal feasts against a team which obtains results through discipline and a team ethic. In their last campaign both Slovakia (0-0) and Portugal (2-2) left Vaduz humiliated and we can only hope that Northern Ireland don’t underestimate the team of journeymen otherwise there is potential for valuable points to be lost
Key Player: Peter Jehle