12 August 2006

2006/07 International Season Preview

Where Do We Go From Here? - Life in Little Norn Iron 11 Months and 4 Days On
Originally published at State of the Game

Northern Ireland vs Uruguay, 21 May 2006
Stephen Craigan, Tony Capaldi, Michael Ingham, Colin Murdock, Mike Duff, James Quinn
Steve Jones, Sammy Clingan, Ivan Sproule, Jeff Hughes, Steve Davis (capt)

We’re still a week away from the new Premiership season, but before that we’ve the issue of the season’s first international matches. Whilst the headlines have been all about England’s new captain, or the possibility that Beckham will be dropped, or the demotion of young Theo to the Under-21s (now that would be a shock!), something much more important has been going on at Windsor Avenue - Lawrie Sanchez has been plotting Little Northern Ireland’s route to Austria-Switzerland 2008!

Having taken a young and experimental squad to the US for matches with Uruguay and Romania at the end of last season, and seen some acquit themselves well despite the two defeats; a full quota of stars should be available for next week's friendly with Finland. Although Lawrie has taken to announcing his squad only when they turn up at the airport, there have been some murmurings in the press as to who will be going to Helsinki and who won’t. These have included stories that the Burnley boys Steve Jones and Mike Duff have been left out, and that three Burnley players, Jones, Duff and Kyle Lafferty have been included? which further goes to show that most pressmen, when they fall over backward can be heard to cry, "Aow, my elbow!"

Northern Ireland Line-Up against Uruguay, New Jersey, May 2006On the same night as the senior squad take on Finland, the Under-21s, in a blinding illustration of the ridiculousness of UEFA’s new Under-21 format, face Romania in Bucharest, a match for which there is little hope of a big turn out as those fans who might have travelled for this match will no doubt be in a drunken stupor somewhere in Scandinavia! Still, this match is perhaps more important than that for the senior’s. It is a qualification match for next year’s UEFA Under-21 Championship, and quite rightly some of the younger members of our full squad may well be included to increase the chances of success. Good luck lads!

As the press continue to stick pins in the Northern Ireland Players’ Directory and second guess the squad for Finland, I’ll take a look at some of those likely, or unlikely, to feature in the green shirt during next seasons European Qualifiers.

Goalkeepers
Maik Taylor (Birmingham City) - Was our rock in nets throughout the dodgy Sammy McIlroy era, earning us draws were we should have lost heavily. Similarly immense for us through last season, his Premiership form behind a poor Brum defence was hit-and-miss. Should start as number one.
Roy Carroll (West Ham) - Northern Ireland fans seem to have seen only the worst of Woy. Has had high-profile blunders against Iceland, Spain and Austria for us to match those he had for Man. U., but without the excellent saves like the one against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final a few years ago. Returning to fitness having missed most of last season, allegedly there is an agreement that he will only travel with the squad if he will definitely play!
Michael Ingham (Wrexham) - Third-choice 'keeper who has won two full caps, and to be honest looked laboured during both. Made his debut as a substitute late substitute against Germany and conceded one, and was at fault for the Uruguayan forty-yarder that beat us in the US.
Alan Blayney (Doncaster) - I saw him make his debut for the Under-21s against Germany four years ago when he conceded a cracker. Didn't hear much about him until he won the Premiership Save of the Season for clawing out an Alan Shearer effort while playing for Southampton in 2004. Will reserve judgement until I see more of him.

Defenders
Chris Baird (Southampton) - Most famous for his appearance in the 2003 FA Cup Final and then disappearing into the Saint's reserves. Always been steady for Norn Iron though, and last season filled in at centre-midfield rather than his favoured right-back. Club boss George Burley has been playing him regularly and in the centre of defence this season too, which is encouraging.
Tony Capaldi (Plymouth) - Plays left-midfield for club, and left-back for country - and frankly it shows. Seems to lack the positional sense of a natural defender and a good pass over his head will often find him stranded. Also show poor distribution, usually due to blind panic. Still our best option at left-back.
Mark Clyde (Wolves) - Made his debut as a right wing-back against Wales in Cardiff when he was superb. Since then he's played just twice through injury, once at left-back and once at centre-back. I'll wait to see if he's recovered his form of old, though more worryingly, there are tails of friction between him and Sanchez.
Stephen Craigan (Motherwell) - Slow, clumsy and a penchant for own goals. Will probably be a regular in the centre of defence! That's probably harsh, he does always turn up, and he always tries, and he played in the win over England!
Michael Duff (Burnley) - Big at centre-back. Came through non-League football and now stars for Championship Burnley. Don't think Northern Ireland's seen the best of him yet, he was dodgy in the home defeat to Wales at right-back.
Aaron Hughes (Aston Villa) - Apparently not rated by his club fans - frankly the GAWA love him. Captain, and willing to play anywhere across the back. Always most confident in the centre though. Hasn’t played since the England match!
Gareth McAuley (Leicester) - Another big-man who can fit in at centre-back or right-back. Moved from Irish League football a few years ago and seemed to catch the eye with Lincoln. Moved to Leicester in the summer, will wait to see how he makes his mark at a higher level.
George McCartney (West Ham) - Currently on a 'break' from international football due to a falling out with Sanchez. Hope they patch it up as he is one of our best defenders, either at left-back or in the centre. Out injured for another few months, but that didn't stop West Ham signing him from Sunderland.
Colin Murdock (Rotherham) - Big no-nonsense centre-back. Bleeds green-and-white. Clumsy as hell. My kind of player!
Mark Williams (unattached) - Still listed on the Irish FA website, though hung-up his boots over a year ago to marry Lynsey-Dawn Mackenzie. Talk of turning out for Irish League side Portadown during the summer came to nothing.
Brian McLean (Motherwell) - A real bugbear with the Windsor Park faithful is that we won't get to really see what McLean can do due to a paperwork cock-up at Windsor Avenue. Scottish born former Rangers defender made one friendly appearance for us last season before it turned out he wasn't properly registered, and by then it was too late!

Sean Webb (Ross County) - Product of the Under-21 set-up who was included for the US tour, Webb has been floating round the Scottish lower divisions for a few seasons now. Really don't expect him to make an impact at full international level.
Johnny Evans (Manchester United) - Star of some televised pre-season friendlies for United, including a tremendous strike against Celtic, Evans will spend the forth-coming season on loan in the Belgian second division with Royal Antwerp. Despite Alex Ferguson's unhelpful assertions that Evans will earn full international recognition in the next year, it should be remembered that he's only 18, and a bit of Under-19 and Under-21 experience will be needed before elevation to the senior ranks.

Midfielders
Stuart Elliott (Hull City) - A few seasons ago Elliott's free goalscoring ways for Hull, mainly from the left-wing, were bringing interest from a number of Premiership and good Championship teams. He spent last year struggling for form in Hull's return to the Championship, and his place for both club and country seem under threat. Scored a great freekick against Azerbaijan last year though!
Steve Jones (Burnley) - I don't think I've seen an individual miss as many sitters as Jonah! Despite countless chances in front of goal for Northern Ireland, Jones has scored just once, and that was in the Caribbean so I've never seen the goal! Seems to be returning to form with Burnley having stagnated at Crewe - hopefully his free-scoring ways will translate to the international scene.
Chris Brunt (Sheffield Wednesday) - Scorer of some cracking goals for our Under-21s and for Wednesday. Hasn't quite done it at full international level yet, though has often been played out of position in centre-midfield. May well play for the Under-21s against Romania, expect him to displace Elliott and make the left-wing his own during this season.
Steve Davis (Aston Villa) - One of the most highly rated midfielders in the Premiership, if he didn't play for Villa he may have earned some of the major Young Player of the Year awards. Set-up Healy's goal against England, and adds a dynamism to midfield not seen in my memory! Captained the squad in the US at just 21 years-old, our youngest captain since Terry Neill in the 1960s!
Tommy Doherty (QPR) - Being a talented misfit at Bristol City earned him a place in the Northern Ireland team, and he put in an immense performance in a 0-0 draw with Spain a few years ago. Lost his enthusiasm, and admitted that he didn't really want to play international football, whichm to a dgree, I respect him for. Seems like a huge waste of talent and on his way out of QPR.
Keith Gillespie (Sheffield United) - Probably the most naturally gifted player to grace the Northern Ireland team since the 1980s, its just a shame a big chunk of his career was spent believing his hype instead of living up to it! The past few seasons have finally seen Gillespie put in the performances he should be, and despite passing thirty he still has the pace to terrify anyone. Back in the Premiership too, hopefully he takes a good bite at his last chance at the top level. Oh, and controls the temper!
Damien Johnson (Birmingham City) - Appointed captain by his club as they attempt to bounce straight back after relegation. Always steady in the Northern Ireland midfield, I can barely remember him putting a foot wrong, though he could do with scoring someday! Serving a suspension for the first two qualifiers, and I think we'll struggle to replace him.
Steve Robinson (Luton) - Oft forgotten central midfielder, he's earned just a handful of caps in nearly a decade of international football. Starred in Luton's 5-3 FA Cup defeat by Liverpool last season, and surely wouldn't look out of place at a higher level. Alas I feel his career has been highlighted by inconsistency and injuries and its probably too late for him.
Grant McCann (Cheltenham) - Former West Ham player who's been a steady but unspectacular utility man for Northern Ireland for a number of seasons, slotting in across midfield or at full-back. Although he could probably do a job at a higher level than Cheltenham, he'll remain little more than a squad player at international level.
Phil Mulryne (unattached) - The biggest waste of talent I can think off. Unlucky at Man United due to injuries, even then Ferguson was sad to let him go. At Norwich he gained weight and an attitude problem. Last season was sent home from the Northern Ireland squad along with Cardiff team-mate Whitley for breaking curfew. Never apologised, and never recalled. Currently without a club, and it wouldn't surprise me if he pisses his life away against a wall!
Jeff Whitley (Cardiff City) - The other of the Cardiff Two, I'd love to see Whitley back in the squad as he's a capable player at the highest level, and really we need the cover in midfield. Has to bite the bullet and apologise publicly to Sanchez, or wait for a change of manager. I'll never forget his goal against Wales in Cardiff, corker!
Sammy Clingan (Nottingham Forest) - Long-time star and captain of the Under-21s, Clingan made his international debut during the US tour. High hopes for him, hopefully he can help Forest out of League One this season too.
Jeff Hughes (Lincoln City) - Young left-midfielder or left-back plucked from the obscurity of Larne to play in the obscurity of Lincoln's Sincil Bank. Played during the US tour, I haven't seen much of him, and don't expect to for a few years yet.
Mark Hughes (Oldham Athletic) - Former Spurs trainee, Hughes has impressed since joining Oldham. Another to play in the US at the end of last season, another who'll have to bide his time for further full international recognition.

Forwards
Warren Feeney (Luton) - Scored two international goals last season, making him our equal top goalscorer! Back-up to Healy, they're too similar to play together, but has proved prolific for most of his club career. Father and grandfather both won caps too!
David Healy (Leeds) - Top goalscorer in Northern Ireland's history with 19 goals in 49 appearances, Healy will remain a legend for his goal against England almost a year ago now. Often spectacular for his country, it is hard to believe he is the same player now who led our forward line through the infamous drought. Doesn’t seem to be rated by Leeds' boss Blackwell, but the Elland Road fans appreciate him almost as much as the Windsor faithful.
Andrew Kirk (Northampton) - Never really had a concerted chance at international level, I don't expect him to in the near future either after he moaned to the press about Sanchez's selection policies. Prolific at club level, he has been long-troubled by injuries. Will have his club place challenged by international team-mate, James Quinn.
James Quinn (Northampton) - Journeyman forward at club level, legend for Northern Ireland! I remember reading an article about Emile Heskey being England's worst ever striker with a return of 5 goals in 43 appearances, well Quinn's return is worse than that, 4 in 46! But that's not what counts; it's his work rate, his commitment, his shear size and ability to create chances for others. Will miss the Finland game through suspension after his sending-off against Romania. A Sanchez favourite, but will he hold on to his place next season?
Andy Smith (Preston) - Snapped from the obscurity of the Irish League by Preston, they're probably just waiting for his contract to run out so they can put him back! To be fair Smith's early performances for Northern Ireland during the drought were impressive, but he definitely has never looked like scoring in a green shirt. Injuries have also left him sidelined for much of his time in England. International career (almost certainly) over.
Ivan Sproule (Hibernian) - A revelation in green and white for both club and country last season. Another plucked from the Irish League, his pace has terrified the best defences in Scotland, a hat-trick against Rangers most notable amongst his achievements. Also scored inside two minutes of his first start for Northern Ireland against Estonia last season, and scared the bejaysus out of England during his brief run-out in that game. Missed the start of the Scottish season after a sending off for a stamp against Hearts in last seasons Scottish Cup semi. Will probably be used more as an impact sub by Sanchez, either up-front or on the wing.
Dean Shiels (Hibernian) - Another who can play as a forward or a winger, Shiels first came to prominence when he scored the winner against Brazil for our Under-19s. Has continued to impress with Hibs this season scoring twice in the first two SPL games. Missed much of last season after he had an eye removed, but found time to make his Northern Ireland debut and tour the US! Will probably link up with the Under-21s for the Romania game.
Kyle Lafferty (Burnley) - The obvious long-term replacement for James Quinn, Lafferty was another who debuted in the US having come through the junior set-up. Established in Burnley's first-team squad though just passed his nineteenth birthday. Another Under-21er who'll be waiting his chance.
Peter Thompson (Linfield) - Scorer of almost fifty goals last season for Irish League Champions Linfield, he also should've opened his international account after a few good chances. Linked with moves to QPR, Barnsley and Gretna over the last 12 months, it surprises many that he is still at Windsor Park. Will no doubt lead the line with Lafferty against Romania Under-21s.
Paul McVeigh (Norwich City) - Currently has his international career "on hiatus". Seems happier playing in the Championship for Norwich than he did in the Premiership. Probably frustrated at never really being given a chance at international level, probably will not be seen in green again.
Gary Hamilton (Glentoran) - A severely messed-up head saw Hamilton leave Portadown mid-way through last season (think Sol Campbell, but with very different problems). Previously has looked dangerous when given a chance by Northern Ireland, will a move to Glentoran bring him back into the reckoning?

So will this extended squad of players help us to the little Germany European Championships in two years time? Unfortunately I very much doubt it. We’ve been lumped into a group with top-tier teams Spain, Sweden and Denmark, plus decent middling teams in Iceland and Latvia, even whipping boys Liechtenstein have had their share of decent results in the last few years. I see lots of draws, but not enough wins to see us through. A fourth place finish would actually be an excellent result.

Whatever the results, I will be at Windsor Park, wearing my Mexico ‘86 scarf and retro-style Blanchflower shirt, hoping memories of the past will bring success in the future.

Finally, I’d like to pay tribute to Gerry Armstrong, who has left his position as Northern Ireland’s assistant-manager to concentrate on business and personal issues (he’s about to become a father at 52!). Gerry, of course, was the scorer of Northern Ireland’s most famous ever goal, the winner against the host nation at the Spain ‘82 World Cup. He played a total of 63 times for Our Wee Country, and scored 12 goals, and was quite simply phenomenal leading the line for nearly a decade. He was part of Bryan Hamilton’s coaching staff from 1994-1997, and applied for the manager’s post when Lawrie got it in 2004. His contribution to the improvements in moral and performances among the Northern Ireland team in the past two years can not be under-estimated. Good luck Gerry with the new family, and in whatever you end up doing!

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