Drawing blanks

David Wylie explores what lies ahead for Northern Ireland

Quitting the international game to re­turn to club management is in vogue. If speculation is to be believed, Sven-Göran Eriksson is considering the lure of Abramovich’s millions at Chelsea. Meanwhile, emphasising the worlds between them, Sammy McIlroy has resigned from the Northern Ireland post to become the boss of Stockport County. Eriksson has just delivered qualification. Sammy Mac, on the other hand, has pre­sided over the worst spell in his country’s footballing history. Yet amaz­ingly, he wasn’t sacked; indeed the opposite. Believe it or not, only a short time before leading NI to a dismal three points, no wins and no goals from our latest campaign, Mc­Ilroy signed a new two-year deal.

Most fans now realise his departure for Edgeley Park is a suitable conclusion to his tenure. But that is not to deny a sense of betrayal throughout the Province. Considering McIlroy’s history as an player – 88 caps and a key contributor to the six glorious years in the Eighties which saw qualification for two World Cups and the winning of two British Championships – he was always going to be shown patience by the Windsor Park crowd. On top of that, he displayed obvious passion for the job, was on good terms with Irish FA officials and members of the media, and his constant praise for fans more used to criticism went a long way. So despite the team being barren in front of goal for 13 games, rather than being sacked, he walked, leaving everyone looking incredibly naive for their endless loyalty. Of course, despite rumours of a specific incident or issue that prompted his departure, it is suspected that Sammy knew what very few others wanted to accept – that he simply wasn’t up to the job.

Northern Ireland are one of UEFA’s smallest nations and as the 20th anniversary of Mexico 86 approaches a sense of realism is beginning to prevail. However, the per­formances in qualifying of Wales, Iceland and Slovenia have given reason to not throw the towel in just yet. Indeed, if the IFA is content with last place in their qualifying group, they must have forgotten our Euro 96 campaign, when, with arguably as limited a pool of players, NI failed to reach the finals in England by a whisker. With home and away victories over Austria and Liechtenstein, a win in Latvia and draws in Dub­lin and Lisbon, NI finished on 17 points in joint second place with the Republic of Ireland, who only progressed to an Anfield play-off on the basis of their win at Windsor Park. Winning, rather than losing, at home to Latvia would have meant direct qualification to the finals.

Sammy Mac did suffer from the retirement of senior players such as Gerry Taggart, Kevin Horlock, Neil Lennon and Jim Mag­ilton, but a comparison of his remaining players with those from the Euro 96 campaign makes interesting analysis. The starting line-up that defeated Austria 5-3 (that’s five, count ’em) in November 1995 was made up of roughly the same combination of Prem­iership, First and Second Div­ision, and Scottish Premier League players as the team that lost in Greece last month. Some point to McIlroy being forced to choose Andy Smith of Glentoran to lead the attack for much of the campaign (although, ironically, Smith has arguably been our player of the series), yet conveniently forget that Paul Kee of Ards kept goal for two of the Euro 96 qualifiers.

Sammy McIlroy’s record throws a whole new light on Bryan Hamilton’s reign, much criticised at the time. The team has been in spiralling decline since he left in February 1998 – so much so that some fans and commentators are touting his return. A more likely candidate is Iain Dowie, a veteran of the Euro 96 ad­­venture. Dowie maintains a high profile through his grimacing face appearing on billboards urging the Northern Irish public to “Support the Beautiful Game” and is favourite for the job, although many would rather see him first gain some more club experience.

Whoever is appointed will need a healthy dose of realism without losing the spirit of ambition that has enabled NI to excel in the past. More practically, they’ll need to clamp down on player withdrawals. Perhaps the most poignant illustration of McIlroy’s time in charge was the withdrawal through injury of Grant McCann from the squad to play Greece last month. For NI, that game, and McIlroy’s career, ended goalless and with defeat. At the same time McCann recovered sufficiently from his ankle gash to pop up and score for Cheltenham in the Third Division game away to Boston United.

From WSC 202 December 2003. What was happening this month