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Saturday, 26 March 2005

1825: Northern Ireland: The tricky s

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by : Chris Sherrard

Northern Ireland’s chances of beating England at Old Trafford on Saturday are about as slim as your average supermodel. But the fact remains: they have still got a chance.

And if they are to spring a surprise it is in their forward players that the Irish will be pinning their hopes. Because there you will find some of the highest scoring players in English club football this season. I know those players are performing at a lower level than nearly all of the men who will face them in Manchester but a goal is a goal. And those goals can only improve the confidence of the men who scored them.

For a start, Stuart Elliott is the top scorer in England this season – above the likes of Thierry Henry, Ruud van Nistelrooy and England’s own Wayne Rooney. 25 goals at any level is an excellent return and the Hull City man even had a month or so out through injury towards the turn of this year. Anyone who has seen Elliott play of late will know that he is a constant threat drifting in from the wing. It is he who England should probably fear most because give him the slightest of chances and, in his current form, he will punish you.

But Elliott is ably supported by Northern Ireland’s all-time record scorer – David Healy. He has scored more goals for his country than George Best could manage. Or Derek Dougan. Or Gerry Armstrong. And for that reason alone Healy deserves respect from Eriksson’s players. The Leeds man has continued to score regularly for his new club since moving from Preston earlier in the season and even though he is not close to matching the scoring ratio of international team-mate Elliott this season, he does contribute masses of creative work. Ask any fan at Elland Road and they will tell you that Healy sets up more of Leeds’ goals than anyone else.

And if those two starting for Northern Ireland this week is a must, the reserve forwards would not let their country down if called upon at any stage on Saturday. Andy Kirk recently completed his switch from Boston to Northampton Town and has immediately picked up where he left off in front of goal. His 19 goals this season have marked the former Hearts hitman out as one of the Football League’s hottest strikers. Given a sniff in front of Paul Robinson’s goal at the weekend he would have little trouble, or lack of confidence, in sticking the ball away.

And the same applies to Stockport County’s Warren Feeney – recalled by Lawrie Sanchez to the international fold after two years absence. He has been playing in a struggling side all season but has still been able to seriously trouble the scorers – his 18 goals in all competitions mark him out as one of League One’s top scorers behind, of course, Stuart Elliott.

At the inevitable risk of opening myself up to intense ridicule, a glance at the scoring records of the four strikers at Sven Goran Eriksson’s disposal doesn’t need quite the same volume of multiplication. Michael Owen has got nine goals in La Liga – most of which have come as a fresh substitute. While Rooney has hit the same number of goals in this season’s Premiership, Jermain Defoe has 13 to his name and Emile Heskey, well, his scoring record continues to strike fear into any defence with the goal handed to him by Villa keeper Sorenson at the weekend his sixth of the season. That’s a whole 19 behind Elliott’s seasonal tally.

I am well aware that Northern Ireland’s forwards are sure to come up against defenders of an infinitely higher standard than they are used to at Old Trafford this weekend. But what they lack in standing and experience at the top level, Elliott, Healy and the others more than make up for in scoring record this season and blooming confidence as a result. What you can be sure of is they will be brave, lively and raring to prove their worth when they take to the pitch to face Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and the rest. Being full of spirit may not be enough but it is more than a start, in my opinion. If they can strike early and stun Eriksson’s England then there is no reason why a repeat of the character and determination which brought their nine-men a 2-2 draw in Cardiff earlier in the qualifying campaign can salvage a similar result.

Strike while the iron is hot is an oft-used motto.And Northern Ireland’s strikers are red hot this season. They couldn’t wish for better form going into the biggest game of their lives.

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