We'd just been wondering whether we'd ever had a feature extolling a much-maligned ginger-haired striker, when Davy Millar offered a tribute to the singular Iain Dowie
Each generation of footballers produces its own crop of heroes, the men whose talents single them out for mass adulation. The rest can briefly rise to national prominence only by persistently psychotic tackling or by becoming a national joke. Iain Dowie is a select member of this group. Ridiculed by lazy comedians and desperate fanzine editors, he is doubly cursed as his physical appearance is considered as amusing as his performance on the pitch. Everybody now knows that he is an anti-Adonis with the footballing ability of a carthorse in labour.
Well, not everyone. Iain can rest assured that there is one part of the world that considers him a star. In his (almost) native Northern Ireland, Dowie is the King of the Penalty Box, the Tamer of Unruly Defences, the Sultan of the Niggling Feud and the Lord of all He Surveys. In short, he’s popular.
Of course, Northern Ireland fans have a head start when it comes to recognizing previously under-rated players, especially centre-forwards. Their role isn’t to score goals but to create as much confusion as possible among the opposition, thereby relieving the pressure on a leaky defence where the Third Division full-back is running amok and the part-timer in the nets is throwing in anything more dangerous than a back-pass.
Historically, we’ve been well-served by our strikers. Back in the 70s the blessed Sammy Morgan, all bony elbows and knees, did a fine job of holding up play, usually by accidently rendering a skilful opponent unconscious.
Morgan was frequently paired with Derek Spence, as fine a dribbler with his knees as I’ve seen, who charged down more attempted clearances than you’ve had hot dinners. Between them, they were able to irritate even the most composed of defences.
By the time that Billy Hamilton and Gerry Armstrong appeared, Northern Ireland possessed a stronger team than usual, which allowed this pair to spend time in the traditional striker’s role of scoring goals. Not that they neglected their other duties; Hamilton could frequently be seen physically dragging two or three opponents into the area to get on the end of a cross, just in case Armstrong’s barging runs provided such an item instead of the throw-ins they were intended to achieve.
Iain Dowie came into the side when his immediate predecessor, Colin Clarke, became too fat to move. He first demonstrated his potential in a match against Norway by playing a part in the last-minute winner. Jumping to meet a corner, he crashed into the keeper and another defender, allowing somebody else to score from a free header.
True, this was in our penalty area and meant that we lost 3-2 but it was obvious that, at the right end of the pitch, he could prove very useful.
It took some time, but Iain eventually won over the crowd. The turning point was the 1995 game against the Republic in Dublin. Up front on his own, he pre-occupied the whole Republic defence and prevented them from joining in the siege around our goal. He chased every lost cause, won every high ball and, of course, scored our first-ever goal in Dublin. He was so good that even the home fans laughed when Steve Staunton was named man of the match.
Since then he has thrived, scoring 4 goals in 6 games. One of those was admittedly went down as an own-goal, but the defender would never have got the final touch if Dowie hadn’t been pushing him.
Iain’s style is not appreciated by the purists who would prefer everybody to play the Ajax way. Sadly for them, football matches are not won on artistic merit but on which side scores more goals. Iain scores those goals. He’s also playing a vital role in the team’s increasingly successful attempts to play attractive football: Gillespie, Magilton and Hughes have more space to work with when Iain’s pulling defenders all over the place.
You can laugh if you want, but we wouldn’t swap Dowie for Ginola. OK, so Iain isn’t likely to dance down the wing, beat three players and put in a dangerous cross, but the Frenchman could never wrestle two defenders to the ground whilst sticking out a foot to divert that cross into the net.
Keep ignoring the critics Iain, just as you’ve done throughout your life. They are jealous, you’re the star.
From WSC 109 March 1996. What was happening this month