So a respectable enough showing in the previous World Cup campaign had Northern Ireland enjoying life in the mid-noughties. Manager Sanchez had now got a team playing fairly simply to its strengths. The spine of Taylor, centre backs Hughes and Craigan and midfield pin Davis was topped off by goal machine Healy and the raw young forward Kyle Lafferty. Speed and service on the right wing was balanced by Keith Gillespie and Chris Brunt on the left supplemented by Damien Johnson and Steve Davis adding craft, solidity and tackling.
The England result had fired the fans up again and a seven-strong group of Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Latvia, Iceland and Liechtenstein would compete with us for the right to play in the Euros in Austria and Switzerland. So the green troops rolled down again to Windsor to face the first batch of Scandinavian Norsemen who would visit us. Iceland at home we were fairly sure we could handle. Forty minutes later we were three goals down. The sun went down on us caused by various people whose surname ended in ‘son’. Chelsea’s Eidur Gudjohnsen had the freedom of the North Atlantic to wreak havoc and hot blood had turned to ice. Manger Sanchez’s post match quote “Really we froze again” somehow lost its stalactite bite.
The local press turned on the manager and the fans were full of apprehension for the visit of the Spanish on the Wednesday. The team however were to get a grip on their mental pesetas and turn in a masterclass to rival the result a year previously against England. Now with an eighteen-year-old Greenisland lad called Jonny Evans making his debut, and captain Aaron Hughes steadying the team with a bandaged head they came back three times to stun Spain and Europe. England felt a little better now that Spain had joined them in detention. A triple swipe by David Healy, the last of which was as swash a buckle as you would see anywhere put the campaign back on track. The Matterhorn, a couple of years away now mattered once more.
After the trips to England and Wales and Vienna had turned to lore the fans now were travelling in significant numbers and over five thousand took over the Radhusplasen in Copenhagen. Fortified by such support Northern Ireland earned a scoreless draw helped by the crossbar saving us from a Daniel Agger effort.
After three games the team was third in the group with a couple of the hardest games out of the way. Next up was Latvia at Windsor and the team was now fairly well picking itself with Evans, Clingan and Lafferty now becoming integral parts of the side. A clever 35th minute move down the right hand flank gave Healy the chance to finish majestically once more and a 1-0 win was secured. This would keep us in oats until the spring where in late March we would be away to Liechtenstein and home to Sweden, or to be more accurate a double bill of the David Healy show.
A wet and bleak Vaduz hosted the Ulster men and hospitality was indeed generous. A lesson in finishing was displayed by David Healy who helped himself to his second hat- trick of the tournament. His second and third were very similar with Gillespie and Davis setting him up for one on ones with the goalkeeper. Indeed four goals were to occur in the last sixteen minutes with Grant McCann helping himself to one as well leaving a 4-1 victory. The only downside was Gillespie getting a booking ruling himself out of the Swedish game four days later. Post – match interviews did involve chat about Sanchez’s willingness to sign a further contract with the team as it was running out in November.
Windsor Park was in fine fettle for the visit of Sweden in late March and the feeling was one of “bring on anyone”. Healy’s club manager Dennis Wise was in the stand watching and the fans let him know he was missing a trick by not selecting him for Leeds. The Swedes took the lead rather clumsily in the 27th minute but this seemed to kick the team into action as four minutes later Healy half – volleyed another classic from the edge of the area to equalise. There seemed little doubt that we would win and after an epic Johnson run down the right Healy coolly dinked the winner showing off his full repertoire. The confidence of the team was well illustrated by Stephen Craigan using his own post to help in a clearance. Healy was simply scoring for fun and was now on nine goals. More importantly the team was topping the group for the summer break. Order your lederhosen now lads.
Little did we know however that this was to be the manager’s last game as he left west Britain for west London and promptly recruited Baird, Davis, Hughes and Healy for his new team. Fulham stopped just short of playing at Windsor. Whilst there was concern, new manager and ex international Nigel Worthington had done ok at Norwich and the fans generally thought that with the team picking itself little could go wrong. There were winnable games before the final away game to Spain and it was hoped the second qualifying place could be sorted before then.
It started well enough on a beautiful summer evening in late August against Liechtenstein. George McCartney who seemed to have his issues with Sanchez returned to the team at left back. Great wing work by Gillespie allowed Healy to head us in front and then he grabbed his second with a fantastic beyond the box curler. A goal in my mind that never got the credit it deserved simply because it was against such a small footballing country. Lafferty got a third and a little bit of gloss was lost after McCartney was central to us losing a clean sheet. 3-1- three points. All was good ……for a fortnight anyway.
The away doubleheader to Latvia and Iceland would be tricky, but with the team in such good form nothing should be insurmountable. Many however look back on this period as being the definitive narrative on Worthington’s spell in charge, and many have never forgiven him for it. This mainly involved his dropping of fan favourite Stephen Craigan for Michael Duff. The feeling was the manager was doing it just for his ego to show he was the boss while the fans felt ‘ if it ain’t broke’. A Chris Baird own goal in Riga was unfortunate resulting in a 1-0 defeat but surely we would not let Icelandic damage happen twice to us. The manager publicly ripped into the team and many felt that he alienated many players from that point to the rest of his time.
It was touch and go whether the match would go ahead in Iceland due to the rain and in hindsight perhaps it would have been good to have had intervention. A rocket of a shot in the sixth minute which nearly tore our net out was the first blow in Reykjavik. The team were creating several chances and deservedly equalised through a Healy penalty.
However Steve Jones lost possession in his own half in the last minute and Gillespie in trying to repair the damage put through his own net for the second piece of hari – kiri in the space of four days. Not many can claim to getting kicked in the Baltics and the Nordics. The final despair was a fight involving McCartney and Gillespie on the way home and Worthington now was in trouble, on and off the pitch.
A very creditable draw in Stockholm a month later earned via a great Kyle Lafferty shot kept us mathematically in the frame for qualification but we were in the hands of others now. We would need to beat both Denmark and Spain in our final two games which was a tall order. The hail and deluge that came down was Old Testament stuff immediately prior to that Denmark game in November 2007. Either Moses was the ref or as did happen, player safety is far from paramount when UEFA need a game played and the next day is Sunday in small – minded Northern Ireland. The only thing missing were paddles.
That said the players somehow managed to put on a decent match and Bendtner had the Carlsberg men ahead in the first half. Little Warren Feeney though with the last of his international goals got his head to a peach of a Brunt cross to equalise. Then Windsor Park was treated to one of the best goals ever seen when David Healy, back to goal and dodgy first touch notwithstanding, lifted the most delicate of chips into the left hand corner of the Kop net. It defied description and reminded me of a Glenn Hoddle similar piece of magic against Watford in the early eighties. That thirteenth goal pushed him into the all time Euro Qualifying goalscorer in a campaign ahead of Davor Suker. To think that all my life Colin Clarke held our international scoring total with thirteen.
A great match and occasion and we still needed to beat Spain and hope Sweden would trip up in their final game. It was not to be and despite another five thousand strong exodus from Ulster to Las Palmas, Xavi Hernandez ended our hopes with a single goal defeat. It had been a thrilling ride yet the feeling was what might have been.
What would have happened if Sanchez had stayed? I’m sure he pondered that too as he was gone from Fulham by Christmas. The fact remains that at exactly half way through the tournament he had acquired the team thirteen points. Worthington rattled up seven points in the second half which tells a story. We would look back on this campaign though with fond memories, especially as the next two would nearly kill us.