There are a few times in my Celtic-crossed footballing life that the pallor fails and your remaining drops of adrenaline suggest you flee from the scene. A few have been well chronicled here – autumn 1999 post-McMenemy and the goalless nuclear winters of 2002/3. But even now, years after the counselling I can still get flashbacks of the shaking and fever that the last two years of the Worthington regime imposed on me. Northern Ireland nil. Nil by mouth.
The tail end of 2011 saw ex-player Michael O’Neill step in and take on the SAS / Spetznaz course that is the NI job. A respected and capable midfielder for us he may well have been and although he took Shamrock Rovers into Europe, he still hadn’t been seen walking on water. As with Lawrie Sanchez his first match was a friendly at home to Norway. As with Lawrie Sanchez, a three-goal deficit was recorded though we didn’t even score this time. The manager’s disappointment was palpable.
His next friendly was a 6-0 obliteration to Holland in Amsterdam. 6-0 to the Orangemen over those in green. However green shoots of a kind started to show in August with a spirited 3-3 draw at home to Finland where the Worthington – alienated Shane Ferguson scored for us.
The qualifying group comprised a fairly disparate group, both on a cultural, political and footballing basis. Russia, Azerbaijan, Portugal, Israel, Luxembourg and ourselves comprised the odd bod group. If Ukraine had been in there you would have been convinced someone was having a bit of fun.
Early September dressed in black the team marched into Moscow thankfully having left their tank commander’s helmet at home. They were still in their summer gear but as against previous visitors had no plans on hanging around. A lad called Jamie Ward from the East Midlands made his debut and Roy Carroll after a six-year break made his competitive return. Lee Camp left the camp in outrage after losing his place in a Northern Ireland team for whom he thought he was doing a favour. As always the cautious optimism at this time of the year was present but was soon on its way before halftime. A second-half penalty conceded by Craig Cathcart meant a 2-0 defeat but in reality better folk have gone to Russia and come out a whole lot worse off than ourselves. Atletico Hitler and Borussia Bonaparte being two notables.
So in reality with the Russian bear back in his forest with Irish prey safely stashed, we were fully expectant of three points against Luxembourg a few days later at Windsor. Fourteen minutes in and after suitable pressure, a well worked and excellently finished goal by Dean Shiels had us on our way or so we thought. We were missing chances though and when Gareth McAuley got his second booking in four days meaning he would miss the Portugal game the crowd were now stuck in the mental Benelux.
It was no surprise when a deflected shot off Ryan McGivern gave Luxembourg an equaliser as we lost tempo and belief in the game. O feelings of emptiness, we meet again. Shakespeare would have had a ball with Northern Ireland. 1-1 it finished.
This was a serious blow and so early in the tournament. Not for the first time I set off for Iberia fearing the absolute bloody worst and what Portugal and Ronaldo with his 100th cap would throw at us. Not for the first time either in this situation we pulled not so much a rabbit but a brute hare out of the hat acquiring a 1-1 draw and a performance and a goal to sustain. Nine minutes from victory we could now see what the team was capable of. Ollie Norwood and Craig Cathcart were now getting into their groove. Corry Evans who had been point man for the damned under the previous manager now started to breathe unaided in a more central midfield role that suited him better. The present manager took a gulp of something life – giving as he badly needed it.
Our down up, down down adventures, were to continue with an Asian version of the Luxembourg match. Step forward once again Azerbaijan. This time a fantastic shot flew past Carroll in the first half and we were behind. Chris Baird missed with two easy headers as Danny Lafferty made his debut at left-back. The pain and anxiety grew to ridiculous levels and in the sixth minute of injury time, David Healy who had come off the bench scored another goal of drama and relief. It was to be his 36th and last ever for the team. Thank- you David. But it was a painful night and sign – off to the year.
The team though had been unlucky – especially in those last two games and were showing much more purpose and play than from a year ago. The problem was though that this was getting smothered as we hadn’t been able to break free of the bad odour of the last campaign. What would 2013 bring?
Well a postponement in late March due to snow against Russia of all people for a start? It was embarrassing and made we want to bury my head in the stuff only to find it was a sheep. It would have been handy to perhaps keep some of it a few days later for the Israeli visit as it might have thrown them a bit but two late goals meant we weren’t adding to our haul of three points. It was clear we would not be going to Brazil and I surmised on the fact that thirty – three years previously to the day, we had drawn 0-0 in Tel Aviv to send us on our way to the World Cup in Spain.
We hung up on the cross with this result until the finally played game v Russia in August. This was to be the result that team and manager had been hinting at and when Martin Paterson headed between two Russian defenders the place let rip with a few years of frustration. This 1-0 victory had been coming and it was no mean result. O’Neills new men were starting to make their presence felt and the crowd were comfortable with the Wards, Fergusons, Cathcarts and Norwoods coming through.
Fired up by the slaying of Ivan all were ready for Ronaldo in early September. The vibes were good and ferocious defender Pepe got the crowd onside by giving a youngster his warm – up top. His fellow defender Bruno Alves was not so accommodating volleying past Big Roy for the first goal. No matter – Gareth McAuley equalised, Postiga was sent off using his head in the wrong fashion and then Jamie Ward got his first goal all before half – time. We knew what we were about and Portugal were up the Gulf Stream without a paddle.
Not quite. The quickest unravelling of a team in green before my eyes was about to happen.
Chris Brunt at left back had been a worry for me as he is not the fastest and my fears were realised as two yellows meant the walk. Kyle Lafferty who had just come on as a sub then lost Ronaldo who being nearly as good in the air as he is on the ground, equalised. Big Kyle then embarked on his lowest moment in green lunging wildly at an Iberian to get a straight red. The crowd were stunned and furious and Ronaldo made quick hay by scoring a further two to end a captivating game 4-2. It was a hammer blow but it did highlight another of our issues – DISCIPLINE. We were continually losing players through suspension and this was now the foaming head of it. A true shame as we may well have won that game.
Badly winded by that and minus a few players due to injury and suspension we expected some comfort in Luxembourg. It is a hell of a blow to expect comfort and then become a statistic. Having taken a lead through Paterson we then floundered around to go 2-1 behind before McAuley got his second in as many games. But we were not fluent and three minutes from time Luxembourg got the winner to get their first competitive win since 1972. That year had been the worst year in Ulster as far as our internal violence was concerned and here again that year was amplified. I and others walked back to the city centre unable to speak. It was awful in every way. A step forward and a long jump back. Appropriately the team were dressed in black.
It was probably best that the last two games were away. The darkness continued with a pathetic 2-0 surrender in Baku. Lafferty, still in disgrace was lucky to be on the bench but never got off it. Jonny Evans, swimming furiously against a rip tide of frustration was sent off. The final game in the Holy Land was perhaps more a stab at redemption rather than winning a football match and the team played better than they had for a few months and acquired a Davis scored 1-1 draw. Few cared anymore.
There was a lot right with the team but it was being killed by what was wrong. The fans could see what the manager was trying to do – would he get another campaign because feelings were raw. Seven points was not good- finishing 5th out of 6th was not good. Finishing one point ahead of Luxembourg and behind Azerbaijan was….well…
Though we did not know it then the end of the painful beginning was upon us.
Michael O’Neill was approaching the end of his walk through the footballing killing fields – 127th in the world FIFA rankings is a place surrounded by skulls and burning villages. He was slowly morphing comfortably into a Northern Irish Dith Pran.