GAWA: “Oh Sammy Sammy, Sammy Sammy Sammy Sammy McIlroy” – NI World Cup Qualifying 2002

Northern Ireland

The chant had echoed many times around my formative visits to Windsor Park. It was more than a dozen years since I had heard it and the busy midfielder, now returning as international manager ushered it out of the protective paper. It was good to see him back and I had high hopes as I was internationally suffering at the end of the last century. Our Euro 2000 qualifying campaign had sunk to the depths of the Baltic the previous November with a 4-1 defeat in Finland. Manager Lawrie McMenemy rightfully decided to return to his Guardsman’s past and did a smart turn to the right and dismissed himself.

The campaign finished with a meagre five points and five goals and to me blighted the whole of the 20th century. Sammy McIlroy, eight- eight times a diligent player for us was just what I needed to get me going again. He had started reasonably well with friendly away wins in Malta and Luxembourg tempered by two home friendly defeats, but had unearthed a young scorer called David Healy. I was determined to support him as we took the field against Malta on a sunny first Saturday in September. The group comprised ourselves, Malta, Iceland, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Denmark.

Opening against Malta was just about the perfect match and indeed the fixtures had fallen reasonably well for us. A chance to get early points on the board followed by a home match against Denmark and then away to Iceland would have been my choice to get us up and running positively. A well worked 70th-minute goal scored by Phil Gray was enough to start us off despite us making heavy weather of a sunny day. Sammy was ‘absolutely delighted’. A month later on a damp and blustery Saturday afternoon we had a more substantial foe in the shape of Peter Schmeichel and ten others who weren’t allowed to handle the ball.

As expected Denmark controlled most of the game. A loose pass, however, was collected by young Healy who fired a rocket past said blonde giant who actually never moved. Hard to say if the crowd or the goalkeeper was more stunned. A dubious equaliser on the hour by speed machine Dennis Rommedahl ensured the game ended all square and Sammy was ‘ reasonably content’ at the end. I was perfectly content knowing I had seen one of the ground’s more memorable goals.

So four days later we head north to Iceland and not at all sure what to expect as this is the sort of place where rather than seeing the northern lights, the northerners tend to put our lights in to use a colloquialism. All was bright until the last minute when goalkeeper Carroll took leave of his senses and net, flailing crazily at a free kick to leave a free header and ourselves to lose the game. Thor himself couldn’t have hit me any harder. At that point I didn’t care what Sammy thought of it. We are as much prisoners of football history as well as political and another soft defeat to Iceland is well within our range.

So to the end of March. In what was probably our last chance to salvage anything from the group and we hosted the Czechs. Pavel Nedved declared ‘Nedved’ to those hopes finishing off a move that sliced our midfield open from one half to the other. We did have our moments but defensive shoddiness was wrapping itself around us. However this was plainly a trailer to the suicide mission we deployed in Sofia four days later. Poor marking, loose passes, dodgy goalkeeping, penalties conceded, you name it- we’d had enough of just letting the opposition score one. Four- one down and we decided it would be fun to see what would happen and we brought it back to 4-3 before the referee decided to stop the fun. So we weren’t Brazil and we weren’t going to Brazil the following summer and probably just as well. By this stage the ‘Exorcist green’ shade of our shirts was starting to annoy me along with my spinning head as the goals flew past us.

The tail end of the season involved a doubleheader- home to Bulgaria and away to the Czechs in Prague on the 6th June. D-Day indeed. Roy Carroll was rewarded for his consistency in being poor by being dropped and Maik Taylor was now employed as tail gunner. The team did a reprise of the Czech game with another move running right through our muddled midfield. A through ball had our centre backs beaten for speed and it was to be another 1-0 deficit at home.

Four days later in Prague a much better performance was deposited. Future priest Philip Mulryne equalised and it was not until the last few minutes that we conceded two. An ignominious end to the season on the pitch was matched off it with five players getting detained by the police over a nightclub incident. All were eventually released without charge but the main note of conjecture was the fact that no official from the IFA bothered to stay with the five who were still detained. Perhaps this is the reason why NI fans are well behaved abroad – if the IFA aren’t bothered about the players….

It ain’t good for morale leaving the wounded behind.

Somewhat battered and bruised we rolled round to the new season and resumed with a 1-1 respectable draw away to Denmark with Mulryne again netting for us. Not only was joy found in Jutland but also a few days later at home to Iceland with a 3-0 win and debutant left-back George McCartney scoring. Perhaps Sammy Mac was starting to distribute his magic. Things were looking up. We had a core of players with a decent spine of Taylor, Aaron Hughes, Magilton and Healy. Michael Hughes and Keith Gillespie would have provided further offensive flair.

A penalty by David Healy in a 1-0 win in Valletta in October brought us a total of seven points in a month. More excitement took place off the pitch with firstly manager McIlroy getting sent to the stand for throwing the ball at a player followed by assistant Jimmy Harvey later on for straying out of his area. The stand is a bit of an ambitious term as the sparse furniture of the ground meant that they hovered under some railings looking like disgruntled caged animals. A sort of Maltese ‘naughty step’. Seven points in a month allowed this levity and a thin veneer of respectability shrouded us. Thin, mind you.

We finished second last with eleven points and overall were disappointed to finish behind Iceland who were two points ahead of us. Carroll’s mistake in Reykjavik had proved more costly than seemed at the time. However, the discovery of a scorer in Healy and the strong finish had us looking forward to the next campaign.

O ye of misplaced hope and aspiration. Little did we know that Healy’s penalty would be our last competitive goal for thirty – five months.