God alone knows what Brian Clough who coined the above saying would have made of Northern Ireland’s 2004 Euro qualifying campaign. He was fond of saying “Young Man” to those he addressed. Those who started off following this campaign as young men were wizened husks with ten thousand yard stares by the end of it. A few still haven’t blinked yet.
So in a five-team group comprising Spain, Ukraine, Armenia, Greece and ourselves we went about Euro 2004 Qualifying with hopes we would be at Portugal in a couple of summers. Albacete in October 2002, unfortunately, was the nearest we would get. Of course little was expected from us away to Spain and starting with such a match is no bad thing.
A three nil defeat was about par for the course but the nature of the goals weren’t great. Whilst it was before the more recent tiki-taka style of Spanish football, no British Isles side expects to be weak in the air against southern European sides. Losing two headers was not good and the Spanish third goal literally was a walk through our penalty area park.
Manager McIlroy and assistant Harvey were in the stand serving their touchline ban from their Maltese madness. After the match the prophet manager was quoted “It was shocking, a horrible feeling and I hope it never happens again.” In hindsight, he could have been talking about his stand sentence, the Irish performance or the whole campaign. Turns out he meant his disciplinary punishment. Another quote could have been equally appropriate a year later. Talking about his decision to play Gillespie as striker instead of Healy he said, “When did David last see a goal ?”. Seventh son of a seventh son Sammy?
Anyway taking this in our stride we hosted the men from Kiev four days later. We were a team of ‘diddy’ men as Ken Dodd would say. All under six foot apart from the goalkeeper. Taggart and Quinn were unfit and Murdock dropped to the bench after losing the war in the skies in Spain. A decent performance was put in all the same but not a goal. First point registered. That point would have to sustain us through a darkening winter. We weren’t the first army to start to get unstuck at the Ukraine.
So with a point to gnaw on until the end of March the only respite was a 1-0 friendly defeat to Finland. The gods, perhaps in sympathy at the apocalypse that was about to unfold us shrouded the match in fog to spare us. It was some hors-d’oeuvre for the rest of the year. The next two matches are the sort of things that I imagine I will see if I fall off the cliff and see my footballing life appear before me. The real question I suppose is were the Armenia and Greece games preferable to falling to my death? Not much significant difference.
The goal against us in Yerevan was another through the middle job. You watched and it felt like you had risen from the operating table without being stitched up. So in the land of earthquakes, our hopes were pretty much in rubble. Any hopes in our home Greek game a few days later of a friendly hand of rescue through the rubble was misplaced also. That hand pushed our miserable face back down into it. In the thirty-eighth minute, James Quinn decided on some personal revenge against some annoying Zeus and was sent off. Keith Gillespie then followed on a double yellow mission and through all this, Angelos Charisteas scored two to make us feel that we now had a volcano to deal with. Charisteas Almighty!
We weren’t quite getting money thrown at us but we were certainly standing in high-vis jackets at traffic junctions as far as our international team was concerned. A home meeting with Spain in June somehow earned us a point. A 0-0 draw was strange having shipped five in a friendly the year before. I was pleased for Aaron Hughes, our recently appointed captain that he had something positive. Being captain of the team at that time was almost like charging the machine – gun post on your own without your rifle. Chris Baird who had played well for Southampton in the FA Cup final had come in at right back and a bearded hombre called Tommy Doherty from Bristol City showed some positive signs in midfield.
Still, our second point was about as welcome at this stage as the second hammered nail on the cross. If this is what you have to go through to achieve so little. The summer provided little relief before remission ended with the final three games starting with Ukraine away in September. Another goalless draw and Michael Hughes’ second booking ensured he was spared the home match v Armenia. A goal in Ulster was now considered like some sort of out of date disease such as leprosy.
Armenia home – September ’03. 0-1. There was just nothing to say anymore. Gillespie and Doherty went off through the game injured. The floodlights felt as if it was a doctor flashing a light into our pupils to see if there was still life. Sammy at the end said –
“Personally I just can’t believe we have lost again”. Personally, I couldn’t believe I was there again.
One of the homes of sport – Athens, finally witnessed our twitching corpse in October. Fittingly it was a penalty rather than open play which sealed out 1-0 defeat – a bit like death by lethal injection. We were now thirteen games without a goal. Keith Gillespie won his fiftieth cap and pulled it far down over his face.
Four days later Sammy McIlroy resigned as manager taking over at Stockport County. It says a lot for him that he never received abuse from the fans but it is possible they were too far in the depths of stupor to activate their motor senses. 2003 to this day was as year a zero you can get for many of us. Golgotha was nothing compared to the walk to Windsor that year.
The final table read like a rap sheet.
Played 8, Won 0, Drawn 3, Lost 5, Goals for 0, nil, nothing, nowt, nyet, bugger all, Goals Against 8, Points 3.
Last in the group- four points behind Armenia. The footballing Richter scale in Northern Ireland couldn’t raise a whimper.