The slow petering out of the previous qualifying campaign had cast a ghostly pallor over the side, and the intervening friendly matches more than confirmed the manager and the team were in their death throes. Five friendly defeats including a 1-0 horror show away to Albania had the undertakers stirring. The absence of many senior players in a US summer tour told a story. The other blow was the retirement of midfield Genghis Damien Johnson.
Drawn in a group with Slovenia, Italy, Estonia, Serbia and the Faroes seemed as cold and draughty a place as some of the countries already in there. More to the point, we had no Ready Brek inside to warm us. The first Friday in September, however, was to throw a rescuing handbrake on the flat spinning team in chloros. The players had reconvened for serious business, Stephen Craigan was captain for his 50th cap and the fans were up as always for the first weekend in September in an even year.
Holding our own comfortably, nobody saw the winning goal coming from substitute Corry Evans with his first touch from the cross supplied by debutant Craig Cathcart. Nobody saw our first win in eleven games either. Was the last year just a bad dream? This was a great start but watching from behind the net that night in Maribor I wasn’t so sure. I wasn’t as joyful as I should be. I felt it was a bit of a fluke and for the life of me could not understand why on earth a schoolboy called Johnny Gorman had come on as sub ahead of more established players. Manager Worthington had said he had “played ever so well” on the tour in America. Yep…his hair was neat and tidy just like his manager.
Still credit where credit is due. It was a huge start to set us up well for the might of Italy in October. On a blustery night Italy treated us to the Andrea Pirlo show and David Healy somehow headed wide in the first half. In the last minute Steve Davis had a great chance but we would have stolen it and a draw was more than fair. Many still weren’t sure about four centre-backs in all the back four positions but two clean sheets would please anybody wouldn’t it Nigel? “A fantastic point”.
My negative suspicions were confirmed, nay hammered in with nails four days later in a place called Toftir. If most of us were prepared to put up with some off beam selections up to now, the McAuley, Hughes, Craigan and Evans back four away to the Faroes was a step too far. The absence of any sort of supporting play from the fullbacks encouraged the Faroes to get into the game and a poorly defended ball led to their first goal on the hour. A Niall McGinn poor miss had been our best effort. Thirty minutes and nothing to show to save this game.
I clearly remember my fury watching the game as our efforts were as bland and grey as the North Atlantic backdrop. Kyle Lafferty however created and finished a clever move in the 76th minute and a poor point was salvaged. The manager savaged the players and their attitude after the game but perhaps the players had broken clear in their own disapproval of their boss. I was disgusted beyond disgust. We had plenty of poor results before but this had the fans considering swimming home Reggie Perrin style. Down to fourth we fell in the table.
The break until March was very welcome when we resumed away to Serbia. A match notable for only 240 NI fans being present following Serbian crowd trouble against Italy. It was lucky there was no crowd trouble in the Faroes for different reasons. Lee Camp, goalkeeper from Nottingham Forest was in for knee worry Maik Taylor. Big Gareth McAuley put us in front but we were not able to hold on and succumbed 2-1 but it was a better performance. Nigel no doubt put it all down to playing his ‘younger self’ Johnny Gorman from the start.
Four days later at Windsor it was Slovenia again. This was the fourth time in as many years that we had played them and their tree-lined landscape silhouette on their shirts was now beginning to grate. So was another 0-0. Even though we were still only two points off the playoff spot and had Lafferty, Hughes and Davis missing, the sheer negativity on show from a defensively minded manager made watching the team something you felt you should clock in for rather than show your ticket. The team were playing with one short recognised forward and it seems that the policy was simply to try and win the game in the last fifteen minutes in the belief that the opposition would lose interest due to boredom. You could actually see players almost scared to go beyond the halfway line due to the tactical straitjacket. We limped into summer and waited for the Faroes to arrive in August.
The fact that it was a summer night and goals and a victory surely were on offer made the trip to Windsor somewhat bearable. The mind went back four years to the day against Liechtenstein in Worthington’s first match when optimism and Healy goals intimated nothing of the grim years ahead. However a fifth-minute collector’s item occurred to set us or way in the shape of an Aaron Hughes goal. No, not a wonder strike from 40 yards but a scrambled effort. Great to see and well done Aaron. Davis neatly scooped a second and then Paddy McCourt decided to score a couple to throw us some manna amidst the poverty of our international footballing lives. The second of his goals is still talked about and had Jackie Fullerton tripping over his cliches on TV.
” The touch, the class, the talisman, the class etc…”. The manager smiled and clapped at the same time on the touchline.
It was to be our last bit of light before the fridge door shut on us for good in that campaign. At home to Serbia a month later a Davis backpass to his goalkeeper never made it and the footballing equivalent of Gavrilo Princip took advantage for Serbia. Just as it had been for Europe those ninety – seven years ago, any positivity for us disappeared in European Qualifying as well. Both Evans boys were booked and were to miss the trip to Estonia .Yet again the team started with one forward in Healy and only started to have a go in the second half. There were no Serbian fans to witness their victory due to their bad behaviour but the joke was that they couldn’t bear to watch NI.
Oh groan! Tramping back into Tallinn after 4-1 defeat to Estonia would remain one of my low points watching the team. Even our goal was an own- goal but two howlers from McAuley and one from Camp made it far from a happy one as Chris Brunt argued with disgruntled fans at the end of the game. The team was done and if there was any doubt Estonia beat us again at Windsor a month later. They even let us take the lead through Davis on his fiftieth cap and only decided to put two past us in the last fifteen minutes to have their Baltic fun with us. A penalty and a screamer just to give us some variety.
The fans felt as warm about things as a convoy from Murmansk. The last death roll of the group was a 3-0 defeat in Pescara to Italy. The final goal was an own goal from Gareth McAuley which in a way summed up the manager’s negative grip of the team throughout. The manager resigned from the post after the game and Maik Taylor on his last appearance decried those players who picked and chose their matches as when to play. Oliver Norwood and Josh Magennis were starting to come through who would be future stalwarts of the side, but right at that point it was nothing to get too excited about. We finished fifth, five points ahead of the Faroes but some way behind our usual proud dignity. Nigel Worthington’s hair still looked like a hairpiece.
Ignominy ran amok – but not much further than the halfway line.