As the clock ticked over to 31 minutes in Lawrie Sanchez’s first match in charge, a friendly in Belfast against Norway, the home supporters began to chant “Championes, Championes.” Their side had just tipped over into enduring the longest goal drought in international history. 1,273 minutes without appearing on the scoresheet. 28 months without a win. A world ranking of 124. This, surely, was the darkest hour.
Taking over from former manager Sammy McIlroy was no dream job. The former Man Utd man had presided over a truly humiliating era, having resigned his position following a Euro 2004 qualifying campaign in which Northern Ireland failed to score in eight matches.
The side he left behind were truly in the mire. The last of McIlroy’s wins, a penalty sealing a 1-0 victory against Malta, had come 28 months previously.
The man the IFA called upon to turn their fortunes around had been sacked by third-tier Wycombe Wanderers the autumn before and had been without a job for four months. Lawrie Sanchez was as unlikely a messiah as you could find.
But as the cliché goes, the darkest hour was just before the dawn. The goalless run would only extend to 1,298 minutes as David Healy nodded home a Keith Gillespie cross on 56 minutes to score the first goal by a Northern Irishman since the spot kick against Malta he had put away himself. They might have been 3-0 down at the time, but it represented far more than a consolation in a meaningless game. Norway ran out 4-1 winners, but the hex was broken.
The sequence of events that would follow was truly remarkable. A renaissance the likes of which Michelangelo would have been proud.
It is said that when Sanchez was appointed he set himself three targets – to score a goal, to win a match and to climb the FIFA rankings. The first was achieved, the second would follow in the very next game – Healy again scoring in a 1-0 win over Estonia – and the third would surely follow.
And follow it did. Progress wasn’t instant, with a disappointing World Cup 2006 campaign yielding just two wins. One of those, though, would be treasured for years to come – a 1-0 triumph over England, the first victory over the old rivals since 1972. The sole name on the scoresheet was, once again, David Healy.
That win, along with positive results against Azerbaijan, Wales and Austria, propelled Northern Ireland to 72 in the rankings ahead of the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign. Drawn in a group including Spain, Sweden and Denmark fans feared the worst, with a humiliating 3-0 defeat to Iceland at home in the first match compounding the pessimism.
The turnaround in the next few matches was nothing short of astonishing, starting at home to European powerhouses Spain.
The Iberians rolled up to Windsor Park with a side featuring, Xavi, Torres, Villa and Raul. Northern Ireland had Stephen Craigan at centre half. When Xavi duly put the Spaniards 1-0 up after 14 minutes, defeat seemed a certainty. But David Healy, the titan of Northern Irish football, had other ideas.
Capitalising on a Xabi Alonso error, Healy equalised. A defensive mistake at the other end allowed David Villa to put Spain 2-1 up, but Healy again levelled, finishing off a training ground free kick routine. Then, on 80 minutes, something magical happened.
Goalkeeper Maik Taylor, himself on as a sub for the injured Roy Carroll, spotted Healy’s run and launched the perfect ball over the top. With Michel Salgado beaten for pace, the diminutive striker let it bounce once, twice before dinking the most delicate of first-touch lobs from 25 yards straight over Iker Casillas.
It was the most beautiful route one goal Northern Ireland had ever seen.
The Green and White army won 3-2 on the night, a country with the roughly the population of Barcelona beating the 7th ranked team in the world. But they weren’t done there.
The October international break saw them pick up another four points, with a creditable draw away in Denmark followed by a 1-0 home win against Latvia (you guessed it, David Healy with the goal). They put four past Liechtenstein in March in a 4-1 away win – Healy with his second hat-trick – before another amazing night in Belfast.
Sweden were next to Fortress Windsor, the 15th best team in the world boasting a 100% record in qualifying and featuring the likes of Freddie Ljungberg and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, at the time in his absolute pomp at Inter.
Again, the visitors went ahead, Johan Elmander scoring with a sharp turn and shot. Again, David Healy came to the rescue. Confidence dripping from his boots, he pounced on a mix-up between the centre backs, swiveled on the spot and lashed an absolute gem of a dipping volley into the top corner from the edge of the area. 1-1, and on the hour mark he struck again, a deftly athletic touch to finish into the corner. The Northern Irish were at the summit.
Top of their group and top of Europe, with one of the most potent international strikers in world-beating form. It seemed like nothing could stop them from reaching their first tournament since 1986.
Sometimes you can pinpoint an exact date when things start to fall apart. April 10th 2007 is one of those instances. Fulham, struggling four points above the Premier League drop zone, sacked manager Chris Coleman and installed Lawrie Sanchez as caretaker manager. Sanchez insisted he could perform both his new role and existing one with Northern Ireland, but it was an arrangement doomed to failure from the start.
He officially departed from his position with the national team on 11th May, admitting he was naive to think he could manage at domestic and international level simultaneously. The side he left were up to 33rd in the world, having sat 124th when he took over. They would rise to 27 in August with another win against Liechtenstein, above the likes of Norway, Bulgaria and, of course, The Republic of Ireland.
The last five games of qualifying, with new manager Nigel Worthington, were crucial. Plenty of hard work had been done but a little more was needed to seal passage into Euro 2008.
It is here where the terminal decline began. Chris Baird’s own goal gave Latvia a 1-0 win, followed by another own goal from Keith Gillespie in stoppage time to hand Iceland a 2-1 victory.
An away draw with Sweden and a 2-1 win over Denmark at Windsor Park left them needing to beat Spain away and hope Sweden lost to Latvia at home. The Scandinavians scored in the first minute, Xavi tucked one away in the second half and the best chance of qualifying for a major tournament in a generation was lost. It was scant consolation that the quite incredible David Healy finished as the top scorer in qualifying, with a ridiculous 13 goals in 12 matches.
Since then, the fall has been as catastrophic as the rise was meteoric. Healy scored just once in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup as Northern Ireland finished fourth in a group where Slovakia and Slovenia ended in the top 2.
2012 was worse, as they finished fifth of six in their group; the only team below them was footballing whipping boys Faroe Islands. Worthington resigned, relative rookie Michael O’Neill employed to turn the tide.
And with two games left of 2014 World Cup qualification, the dream of reaching another major tournament is over for another two years.
As for Lawrie Sanchez, he was sacked by Fulham within eight months, staying unemployed until Barnet picked up his services in 2011. He was dismissed from the North London outfit on 16th April 2012, six and a half years after the greatest triumph in his managerial career. He remains without a position.
The split between Sanchez and Northern Ireland is all the more tragic given the downward turns both have taken since parting ways. It seems that the perfect circumstances in 2006-07 gave the one and a half million or so in Norn Iron the chance to dream of international glory again, a hope not repeated since.
The trinity of Sanchez, Healy and Northern Ireland flirted with greatness and danced around the history books. Who knows what might have happened if Mohammed Al-Fayed hadn’t picked up the phone in April 2007.
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona