A glorious late summer day in Bratislava greeted the long snake of green-shirted fans heading through the narrow streets to the Tehelne Pole Stadium. Apartment owners looked down on the noisy Ulstermen enjoying this rare sight. Buoyed by Healy’s goals and Slavic beer the fans had every reason to be full of anticipation for the start of the 2010 World Cup campaign.
Drawn in a group with the Czechs, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and San Marino, mid – Europe screamed “all to play for” in this group. After an even-steven first half grief hit us in the forty-sixth minute as imposing centre-back Martin Skrtel glanced home a header. In the seventieth minute following NI penalty claims after a handball, Hamsik hammered home for two nil. Chris Brunt’s arrival on the pitch helped things with a Slovakian own – goal soon following but NI didn’t do enough really to warrant much and we sloped off with a 2-1 defeat.
Manager Worthington frothed at his players afterwards and a year on from the Iceland debacle we were back at square one managerially.
The Czechs were hosted four days later at a grim and wet Windsor. Steve Davis had family issues to attend to and missed the game. We had our chances but again a first point was fine though disappointment lingered from Saturday’s dalliance at the Danube. Various players were now knocking the door of the international squad – Martin Paterson and Dean Shiels lurked and Sammy Clingan was now an integral part of the midfield but something was missing from the previous campaign.
A month later we travelled to Maribor in scenic Slovenia. Would it be a mountain peak or a valley trough for the match result. Unfortunately, no thin air was enjoyed as two goals in the last six minutes undid us. NI had their chances primarily through Lafferty but two defeats from the first three matches now was a tough valley to climb out of as far as qualification was concerned. Points and goals were expected at home to San Marino but that was the same for everyone. Nevertheless, goals were spread through Lafferty, Healy, Davis and Grant McCann. Little significance did we place on that goal from Healy, but we would at the end of the campaign. A Mr. Marani showed his annoyance by getting sent off against us which you think of as a routine but maybe not……
The fans were far from delighted with four points from twelve at this point and rightly felt that at least six would have been more than a proper haul. The team was not as settled as the last campaign. Too many positional awkward moments…too many players in and out of the team…too many talking points, not enough points. But the team were far from out of it. A win would make all the difference.
Battle was rejoined in Serravalle against San Marino in February. Talk during the break surrounded the cack-handed international career termination of crowd favourite Keith Gillespie by the manager. It hung in the air for months and along with Michael Hughes’ abrupt finish four years earlier albeit in different circumstances, the crowd felt cheated of a goodbye. A match significant for Chris Brunt and Gareth McAuley who scored their first goals in a 3-0 win. Mr Marani clearly still annoyed with all things Red Hand decided he could hold it in no longer and received the red card yet again against us. Marvellous! Sadly, Lafferty, Davis and McCartney would miss the match v Poland next month due to yellows accrued.
Into late March and a cool day at Windsor Park was the setting for a boisterous match against Poland. The visiting Polish fans considered the match incidental as they attempted to set fire to the stand and tried to fight anything in Belfast that day. Unfortunately for them they had picked a city where that sort of nonsense is relatively normal and the locals and their team were able to concentrate on the game. It was a hell of a game. The Poles’ shy and retiring wallflower Arthur Boruc, well aware of his Celtic presence in such a city played the pantomime villain to perfection.
The fun started when Boruc missed a cross and Warren Feeney benefited from Johnson’s return header. It was a goal which set the fans off and they didn’t let a grip of the match ever vanish. The Poles soon equalised with a powerful low shot but it was to be a day of green. A corner comes in ‘avant le Kop’ and Jonny Evans bundles in the second and his first for his country, but the dessert would be a proper Eton mess. Damien Johnson in the middle of the Warsaw ghetto, hassles an opponent who passes back to far from boring goalkeeper Boruc. The crowd warm up to give him the bird for a straightforward clearance, but fate has a sense of humour and a bobble has the ball in the back of the net as he kicks air. All that was missing was the ref in big red boots and red lipstick over his face blowing the whistle. Farce to the power of ten. Good Gdansk almighty!
The crowd roared joy and fun and the moment passed there and then into footballing folklore in South Belfast. ‘Artur Boruc, Artur Boruc, Ulster’s number one ‘ bounced around the concrete structures there and thereafter. A late reply to make it 3-2 could not puncture the Ulster bombast and we looked forward to Slovenia’s visit on the Wednesday.
The Slovenian game produced a largely indifferent display but this was forgotten as with eighteen minutes to go, tireless competitor, Warren Feeney reprised his goal v Denmark a year and a half previously with another deft and glancing header. Warren Feenia1 Slovenia 0 since we are in that zone. ‘Warren Feeney, Warren Feeney Ulster’s number One’ raucously replaced Artur. The crowd rejoiced in fan and player Feeney’s joy. The team now headed the group by a point from Slovakia. It was to be Feeney’s high point as a player. Indeed it was his last ever goal. More pertinently it was also to be the zenith of Nigel Worthington’s tenure. Top of the group with three games remaining, the team getting points and goals without their centre-forward Healy sparking and everybody forgot it was April Fool’s day.
The seventh game of the group away to Poland was to be pivotal as it turned out. Off the pitch the fans weren’t helped by the match being moved from the northwestern city of Szczecin to Chorzow several hundred miles away. This was on top of the real threat of violence from Piotr and his mates. The match was one high-level security issue and the only thing missing were tanks. The Polish police seemed to enjoy ripping into their own reprobates. Kyle Lafferty ignored it all and in one of his trademark away goals coolly put us ahead before halftime.
It looked as if the team would hold on and Martin Paterson could have put it to bed but the Poles equalised with nine minutes to go. It blew the puff out of us not just in the game but for the rest of the campaign. A 1-1 draw was a great result but it was pyrrhic. The injury picked up by Lafferty would rule him out of Slovakia at home. Feeney was missing too. But more significantly it was the sheer physical effort put in by the team that did for them against Slovakia at Windsor. The team was flat and had no answer to Slovakia’s two goals. We fell to third and a final goalless draw in the freezing Czech Republic was not taking us anywhere. The team had fallen away sharply in the autumn. It surely would have been different if we had held on in the coalfields of Silesia.
The other deafening statistic was goal machine David Healy spluttering to a one-goal halt. We badly needed more of the previous campaign’s thirteen goal bounty to be continued in this series. He had worked so well with Gillespie but it was not just that. He was having a far from smooth time in his club life and it certainly was not his fault. We finished fourth out of six in the group though interestingly still ahead of Poland who would have had more introspection on their tournament than ourselves. Soon the peaks of this group would be distant memories for several years.