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Wednesday, 23 March 2005

1815: Northern Ireland: Belief and s

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by : Chris Sherrard

For Northern Irish football there doesn’t come many bigger occasions, certainly in the last number of years, than playing England in front of a packed house at Old Trafford.

For so long the Belfast boys have been in the international wilderness with nobody outside of the province particularly interested in how they are doing apart from to keep a methodical, increasingly pedantic, count on the number of hours they go without scoring a goal. It is frustrating for the supporters to know that their loyal and passionate support is not being matched on the pitch by the players who pull on the green shirt to represent them.

But things are looking a good deal more rosy in recent times. I promise. Since Lawrie Sanchez got off the mark in his very first game with, not a win, but a goal to end the barren spell, things have picked up. We even started winning games, too. Happy days. The World Cup Qualifying stage was always going to be an acid test for the young squad but, by in large, they have not disgraced themselves so far. In fact, the heroic display of Northern Ireland’s nine-men in the hothouse cauldron of Wales’ Millennium Stadium back in September was as good a performance as I have witnessed from Our Wee Country in some time. A draw was the very least they deserved from that one.

And now we come to Saturday and Manchester. This is the one the countdown has been on for since the draw was made. Because the spotlight which has seldom shone our way will for once expose Northern Ireland. The team have as big a chance as they are likely to get to impress a worldwide audience. Players who are used to performing each week in front of, more often than not, half-full terraces in English football’s lower leagues, will run out to a sell-out capacity crowd in one of the most famous and attractive footballing stadiums in the world. The thought in its own is enough to send shivers down the spine.

Nobody expects an away win. If you ask most pundits I’m sure they’d predict a veritable mauling for Northern Ireland. But they will be surprised. Football is littered with incidents of pure blind faith. But this is more than biased devotion on my part. We can ‘send it up ‘em’ at Old Trafford. Maybe not beat Sven Goran Eriksson’s side, but at least give them a scare. Get biting at their ankles right from the start and get plenty of support to the front two and anything really is possible.

Such is the form of Sanchez’ strike pairing of David Healy and Hull City’s 27-goal Stuart Elliott. They’ll provide a different proposition than much of what the English defence has faced this season. Who is to say how they will cope?

Northern Ireland do have a smattering of Premiership experience to call upon at Old Trafford. Those players – including in-form keeper Maik Taylor, Newcastle’s Aaron Hughes and Birmingham battler Damien Johnson – will be important in the heat of battle. Big games are needed from those type of players if a shock is to happen. But if you look beyond them to the other likely starters, Keith Gillespie is returning to something of the form that made him a popular figure at Manchester United and Newcastle in the past. Likewise, Sunderland’s George McCartney is in remarkable form of late and he will be a threat to England on Saturday, of that I am extremely confident.

For most Northern Ireland fans the step into the shimmering spotlight this weekend is a long overdue experience. In our hearts we know that the trip to Austria a few days after Old Trafford is just as big a game. But for one day, the boys in green will step forward and give England as hard and physical a game as they have faced in recent times. It’s all in the hearts.

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