A record run of victories has left Northern Irish fans plotting World Cup qualification

By Roy Kitson in Belfast
A record run of victories has left Northern Irish fans plotting World Cup qualification

Four World Cup qualifying wins on the trot – a record for the Northern Ireland national side – have put manager Nigel Worthington’s team top of their group, with real hopes of making a fourth appearance in the finals in South Africa next year.

Mind you, that series includes home and away victories against international minnows San Marino last October and February, while in-form rivals Slovakia have played two games less and are cast-iron certainties to move two points ahead of Northern Ireland when they play at home to San Marino at the beginning of June.

But two vital Windsor Park wins in the space of four days against Poland (3-2) and Slovenia (1-0) have given a big boost to morale following a shaky start as the team registered a single goal and a single point in their first three qualifiers, losing away to Slovakia (1-2) and Slovenia (0-2), and playing out a goalless draw in Belfast with the Czech Republic.

Their remaining three fixtures see Worthington’s men play twice away from Belfast, where they are unbeaten in nine competitive games – which is also a record. Seven of those games have come under 47-year-old Worthington, who took over from Lawrie Sanchez in June 2007.

Former left-back Worthington, who was capped 66 times, was a veteran of Northern Ireland’s 1986 World Cup campaign. He has continually stressed the importance of his players’ spirit and passion – vital elements in their success against technically more-gifted opponents, especially when backed by the fearsomely enthusiastic “Fortress Windsor Park” home crowd.

In September Northern Ireland must play away to Poland and at home to Slovakia, ending their campaign – barring play-off games – away to the Czech Republic in October.

Realistically, the odds are weighted against a friendly invasion of South Africa next year by the legions of Northern Ireland’s “Green and White Army” of supporters, but surely no more so in those heady days of 1958, 1982 and 1986, when the team from a province with a population of 1.75million played on the big stage.

With 29-year-old David Healy – top scorer in the Euro 2008 qualifiers and Northern Ireland’s record goalscorer with 35 goals in 73 appearances – currently suffering a loss of sharpness in front of goal due to a lack of first team football at Sunderland (he’s got just one goal, against San Marino, in the present campaign to his name), Warren Feeney is presently sharing the mantle of front man.

Feeney – on loan from Cardiff City to Dundee United in the Scottish Premier Division since July 2008 – is in a fine vein of form and scored his fifth goal in 32 appearances, and his first and second in the 2010 qualifiers, with the opener against Poland and then the only goal of the match against Slovenia.

His neat 73rd-minute header from a pinpoint right-wing cross by midfielder Sammy Clingan was enough to win the game against the run of play, after Slovenia failed to exploit their technical superiority and turn slick build-up play into goals.

Four days earlier, Northern Ireland had also enjoyed the rub of the green when a backpass took a bobble as Poland keeper Artur Boruc swung his foot at the ball on 61 minutes to give the home team a decisive 3-1 lead.

Another attacking option is 6ft 3in Rangers target man Kyle Lafferty, who missed the games in Belfast against Poland and Slovenia in April due to injury.

Another vital member of the Northern Ireland team is 37-year-old Maik Taylor. The Birmingham City keeper has played every single minute of the qualifiers, as have versatile defender and captain Aaron Hughes of Fulham and Healy.

A star for the future is undoubtedly Manchester United defender Jonny Evans, 21, who scored the team’s second goal in the 3-2 victory over Poland, while 29-year-old Grant McCann, who plays for English League One side Scunthorpe United, is a huge creative influence in the midfield engine of a team which looks to make up for any technical deficiencies with spirit and passion.

The question is whether that spirit and passion – and just a dash of luck – will be enough to carry the team to South Africa next year.