30 December 2007

2007: So Near… and Yet So Far

An NIFG review…

It really was a year of ups-and-downs (and here the clichés begin) for the Northern Ireland international squad and its supporters. We topped our group in March, we lost our manager in May, we slumped in September, we rallied in October, we (or at least Healy) broke records in November, but ultimately come June next year we’ll not be in Austria or Switzerland. We’ll be in Belfast of Ballymena, Lisnaskea or Lisburn watching on TV as Europe’s finest compete for the Euro 2008 title.

But seriously, how can we be disappointed? As I viewed the draw for Group F way back in January 2006 I felt we had little chance of qualifying, an opinion seemingly reinforced by an opening day 3-0 home defeat by Iceland – how that team haunts my thoughts! Still, despite the opening September slip, the loss of Lawrie and Nigel’s early nightmare we went into the final game of the series with a chance, no matter how slim, of qualifying for a major tournament. That it was not to be was ultimately disappointing, but that we were in there with a shout offered the most exhilarating of experiences that Norn Iron fans have encountered in two decades!

Match of the Year
Northern Ireland’s 2007 began in February with a friendly match against Wales. Both teams were weakened by injuries and withdrawals and inevitably the game was a fairly tedious 0-0 draw. Thereafter every match was a competitive one, with a share of joy and sorrow, ecstasy and despair. The year brought four wins, two draws and three defeats, thirteen goals for and nine against.

There were actually some strong contenders for the Match of the Year title. The rain drenched Windsor meeting with Denmark that kept us in the hunt and in which Healy broke the European Championship qualifying goalscoring record and the turnaround following the setbacks in Latvia and Iceland that saw us unlucky to only draw in Sweden were both superb matches with supreme performances from Our Wee Country.

The match of the year, by NIFG’s reckoning at least, was the first meeting with Sweden at Windsor Park on 28 March. Going into the match was the carrot of a possible top-spot if we won, but also the leveller that we were facing a Swedish side that had yet to drop a point. What followed was another virtuoso display by David Healy backed up by a fine supporting cast. Although we fell behind to a 26 minute Elmander goal the crowd never lost faith and within five minutes another piece of magic, a dipping half-volley from the edge of the area, by the Talisman had seen us level. Thirteen minutes after the break and Damien Johnson, in a rare appearance on the right-wing as stand-in for the suspended Keith Gillespie, whipped in a cross to be proud of and again there was Healy to clip a perfect shot across the ‘keeper and into the net. At 2-1 up we came under pressure from the Swedes, and possibly the funniest moment of the campaign arrived as Stephen Craigan coolly side-footed a clearance against Maik Taylor’s post!

Disappointment of the Year
While it is easy to point to individual errors, or even to the matches that “cost” us a place in Austria-Switzerland, perhaps the biggest disappointment of the year was the resignation of Lawrie Sanchez. Would we have qualified had he stayed on? To be honest I’m not convinced we would have done, certainly we probably wouldn’t have lost to both Latvia and Iceland, but it should be remembered we have won just one competitive away game under Sanchez’s charge. What his departure did do was take a certain amount of the wind out of our sails, and the aftermath saw Nigel Worthington make some disappointing decisions that were perhaps key in those September away matches. But then, it should be remembered that football is a game of ifs-and-buts!

Player of the Year
The answer to this is all too obvious, but a run-down should highlight the others who made a significant contribution to our achievements. Those who didn’t make the short list include Kyle Lafferty, who after a slow start really showed his worth in the second half of the year; Maik Taylor, who continues to ignore his age as the inspiration between the sticks; Aaron Hughes, our very own captain marvel and a player we sorely missed on occasions; and Keith Gillespie, another man who doesn’t seem to realise what age he is (and that could be taken as a plus or a minus).

So, in reverse order:
3 Stephen Craigan: A man responsible for a many a heart murmur, Craigan has steadily gown into an indispensible member of the Northern Ireland back-line (if only Worthy had felt the same way, eh?). Sure he’s not the quickest or the most skilful centre-half, but he was continually in the right place at the right time, right up to the minute he deflected Xavi’s shot past Taylor in the final match against Spain.
2 Sammy Clingan: Was forced to grow-up fast due to the unavailability of first-choice central midfielder Damien Johnson for much of the campaign. By the end Sammy was there on merit. Gone were the fears that he was too light-weight to work alongside Steven Davis, gone too was the early rashness to his play, the panicked passes and wayward crossing. There instead was a young midfielder, strong in the tackle, cool in possession and undoubtedly an asset to the Northern Ireland team for a decade to come.
1 David Healy: What more is there to say about the Talisman/Sir David/King David/God? Thirteen goals from twelve games, a new tournament record (and if you think about it, equal to the previous Northern Ireland career record). Another hattrick to add to the one he scored against Spain last year. The variety of goals too, poachers finishes, exquisite lobs and pile drivers, all possible, all dispatched with a regular and unerring coolness. Let’s not write off his chances of making an impact on the Premier League just yet either!

A final special farewell to James Quinn who, although last capped in October 2006, hung up his boots completely in September with the legendary words: "If I can't play for Northern Ireland then I would rather quit football and become a fan and cheer the lads on..."

Sadly missed
In 2007 Northern Irish football lost some influential figures from our past:
Tommy Cavanagh: Assistant manager to Danny Blanchflower in the late-seventies, Cavanagh also coached at Manchester United.
Derek Dougan: Member of Northern Ireland’s 1958 World Cup squad and former captain, Dougan is the only Irishman to have scored over 200 Football League goals. Also chairman of PFA and Wolves legend.
Willie Cunningham: Another man who played at Sweden ’58, Cunningham was a right-back or centre-half with St Mirren, Leicester and Dunfermline and a respected manager.
Shaun Dunlop: Twice capped at Under-23 level, Dunlop won an Irish Cup and two Blaxnit Cups with Coleraine and also represented the Irish League.
Len Graham: Full-back who played under Peter Doherty at Doncaster Rovers and was capped on fourteen times during the 1950s.
Tommy Dickson: Capped only once, it is Dickson's goalscoring performances for the all-conquering Linfield sides of the 50s and 60s and for his exploits while representing the Irish League that he will be best remembered.

2008
So what will next year bring? The one thing I've learnt in the last few decades of following Northern Ireland is that dreams can come true, but the hope will kill you!

First thing's first though, we need a manager to sign a c ontract, be it Worthy or someone else...


No comments:

Who was Northern Ireland's Greatest World Cup Player & Team? (select up to eleven players)

© NIFG 2006-2015