Manchester United and Northern Ireland: A Special Bond

January 5, 2007

Published: Happy Days Issue 8 and StateOfTheGame.co.uk, 5th January 2007, http://stateofthegame.co.uk/2007/01/05/manchester-united-and-northern-ireland-a-special-bond/

At the beginning of last year, while visiting a friend in Manchester I decided to make the most of the opportunity and head down to Old Trafford. Manchester United is a club steeped in history, and the on-site museum ensured that I was reminded of this. The Munich air crash of 1958 followed by European success ten years later, the troublesome seventies and the Fergie Era. The stories which had been written on the football field were being treasured and told to a younger generation some 50 feet away. However the one display that dominated the ground floor of the club museum was a tribute to the then recently deceased George Best. It served as a poignant reminder of a Northern Ireland connection with arguably the most famous club in the world. Indeed a glance at the museum’s International honours list shows an impressive number of players who have represented both the Red Devils and Northern Ireland. No club can boast more Ulster representatives than the Manchester outfit.
Whilst George Best is undoubtedly the most recognisable link, no fewer than 28 players have appeared in both the Red and Green shirts, notching up over 750 caps between them. Recognisable names like Best, Sammy McIlroy and Jimmy Nicholl jump out from the engraved list. History makers too such as John Peden who scored Ireland’s first hat trick and Norman Whiteside who became the youngest ever player to appear in a World Cup in 1982. Survivors of the Munich disaster, Harry Gregg and Jackie Blanchflower are names held in high esteem on both sides of the Irish Sea. The crash ended Blanchflower’s career and Gregg became a named associated with courage, although the big Coleraine man is quick to stifle any attempts to label him a hero. It is true he should be remembered for his performances between the sticks, yet many people seek to define him through what he did that night on the runway.

Recent years too have seen Irishmen emerging from the home dressing room at the Theatre of Dreams. Keith Gillespie and David Healy may not have featured highly in Alex Ferguson’s plans but their pedigree upbringing has benefited the national team immensely. The same cannot be said of Pat McGibbon and Phil Mulryne who never lived up to their youthful potential. The former finds himself back home in the Irish League with Portadown and the latter who is reaching the supposed peak years of his career has yet to find a club for the 2006/07 season. Roy Carroll did make a name for himself at Old Trafford, although unfortunately it was more due to some high profile mistakes rather than his shot stopping ability. He remains however, the only Ulsterman to have won a Premiership medal.
And the future for both club and country is bright. Whilst Derry born Darron Gibson has opted to play for the Republic, Jonny Evans has the opportunity to prove to Ferguson he has every right to be involved in the first team if he performs well under another Irishman, Roy Keane, at Sunderland. His younger brother Corey and Craig Cathcart who are also on United’s books, are two more names that might just be engraved in that honours list someday. As long as Northern Ireland keep producing, and Manchester keeps nurturing, there will always be a special relationship between the two, and some successful teams as well.

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Northern Ireland’s Tomorrow’s Men

January 4, 2007

Published: Happy Days Issue 7 and StateOfTheGame.co.uk, 4th January 2007, http://stateofthegame.co.uk/2007/01/04/northern-irelands-tomorrows-men/

2006 was a good year for the Green and White Army.
It was a year that saw an unlikely victory over Spain along with a battling draw in Denmark added to credible victories over Estonia, Finland and Latvia. It was a year which saw end times on the international scene for seasoned veteran Colin Murdock, with James Quinn likely to follow suit shortly. It was a year where Michael Duff, Chris Baird and especially Stephen Craigan have gained glowing recognition for their efforts, with some fine individual performances. Yet perhaps when we look back in five years time at 2006, it will be seen as a year in which many of our young stars began to shine. Sammy Clingan, Kyle Lafferty and Jonny Evans all made their international debuts, and all have been huge successes in the eyes of the Windsor Park faithful. And with all three playing regular League football, the future looks very bright indeed for Northern Ireland. The re-introduction of the under-21s has surely been a catalyst in this sudden burst of youth, and there is hope that there will be many more gems to be uncovered. So, who can we expect to see breaking onto the international scene in 2007 and beyond?

Daryl Fordyce
While many spectators at last summer’s Milk Cup turned out to see newly capped Kyle Lafferty, his strike partner went largely unnoticed. Portsmouth player, Daryl Fordyce bagged two goals against Turkey to outshine his colleague in the goal scoring charts. For those who know the Sandy Row lad, they could hardly have been expected to act surprised. A stunning feat of four goals against (the now defunct) Serbia and Montenegro under-19s in a tournament in Belgium saw his stock rise. The third goal in particular was a real peach, reminiscent of a young David Healy strike against the French under-21s shortly before his senior debut. In the next game against the hosts, he showed real guts and determination as well as vocal leadership to help the team turn around a 2-0 deficit to draw level, only to lose to a last minute winner. His commitment to the cause in that game was highlighted when at one stage he came charging back into his own third Rooney-esque, to win back possession for the team. His hunger to win unfortunately carried through as he was involved in a stoppage time infringement with the opposition goalkeeper, and whilst the red card was harsh, it should serve as a learning experience.

Verdict: He needs first team football to develop, so hopefully he can gain a loan spell to a lower division club. If Fordyce can carry his international form onto the club scene, and maintain his level headedness, then he can expect to be seen as a contender for senior recognition in the next 12 months
Craig Cathcart
Coming from Greenisland youth team, which has been acting as a feeder club for Manchester United of late with Jonny and, younger brother, Corey Evans signing for the Old Trafford outfit, Cathcart was the latest boy to be sent over the water. The Red Devils picked him up after the centre-back shone in the 2005 Victory Shield, and he went on to become virtually an ever present for the under 18s the next season. His good form (and the fact that he is part of a ?big club?) led to his selection in Roy Millar?s under-21 panel for the latest game against Germany, despite being only 17 at the time
Verdict: He certainly has youth on his side, and whether or not Sir Alex Ferguson decides to send him to feeder club Royal Antwerp at the start of next season will show just how highly he rates young Cathcart. Don’t expect to see him make his debut this incoming year, with plenty of defensive cover, but should Northern Ireland be eliminated from qualification before the final games, Sanchez may wish to give the boy a chance to prove himself.
Rory McArdle
Another centre-back, 19 year old McArdle was born and bred in Sheffield yet qualifies for Northern Ireland through his father. A physical defender in the old-fashioned mould, he is good in the air and strong in his challenges. He is also equally adept at providing an attacking threat from set-pieces as Paraguay found out during last season’s Milk Cup, when McArdle’s strength allowed him to set up Lafferty. Having been sent on loan to Rochdale last season where he made 20 appearances, he made his debut for his hometown club Sheffield Wednesday in the early part of this season. However, after just two substitute appearances he was on his way back to Spotland in early November. Alongside Jamie Ward of Torquay he is a rarity on the IFA database in that he is was born in England and yet has managed to find his way into our youth network. His talent and success would suggest that Roy Millar could do little worse than look south at the FAI?s successful scouting system in unearthing talent with Irish connections.
Verdict: If Wednesday can achieve promotion then don’t expect to see McArdle hanging around Hillsborough for too long. His eagerness for first team football is noted, but he should be capable at a higher standard than League Two, and competing with Grant McCann, Gareth McAuley and Jeff Hughes for a squad place.
Paddy McLaughlin
Perhaps not the most talked about of Kenny Shiels under-17 team with full back Ryan O’Neill (West Ham) and skipper Ryan McGivern (Man City) being hailed as the bright stars of this team, McLaughlin has every chance of following his team mates across the Irish Sea. A year younger than most in the under-17 team that won their mini-tournament in October, McLaughlin shone like a beacon in the centre of midfield with fair challenges which focused on winning possession rather than bringing down the player, followed by crisp passing. His energy was evident in protecting a back four which didn’t concede in any of the three matches, as well as offering another option in attack. With a pedigree background at Greenisland, McLaughlin will surely be hoping for a move in the summer to the mainland, and judging by his performances in a green shirt, he has every chance
Verdict: Too early to say if he will be a future international star, but this is exactly the type of player that the under-21 set up will benefit in a few years time. The hope is that he won’t follow Michael O’Connor and Tony Kane in opting to play for the Republic in a few years time, as it seems anyone with a Gaelic sounding name can expect an approach. If it were to happen, it would be Northern Ireland’s loss
With such an influx of young players breaking into the senior team in 2006, these lads will find it more difficult in the coming year to make the step up, especially in the middle of a qualifying campaign. One thing is for sure? The future’s bright, its Green and White.