A New Dawn?

Cathal Coyle examines recent achievements by the NI football team and looks ahead

‘We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland’ may have to be revised soon by the fans if the latest result against Spain is anything to go by.

What about ‘Watch out Brazil, we’re after number !' The euphoric 3-2 victory against a highly-fancied Spanish side packed with Champions League superstars in the Euro 2008 qualifier was one of the greatest victories ever at Windsor Park by the home team, arguably even surpassing the famous defeat of England a year previously.

The common thread in both of these games was star striker David Healy, who famously struck the winner against the English and plundered a fabulous hat-trick against the Spanish, including an audacious half-volley lob over the stranded Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas to clinch all three points for the victory.

The result has raised hopes and expectations that Northern Ireland can qualify for their first major finals since the 1986 Mexico World Cup. The qualifying group is now wide open and if the team can obtain positive results away to Denmark and at home to Latvia in October, they will be in a strong position going into the final qualifiers in 2007.

The only frustrating feature of the past month has been the sheer lack of consistency by the team - losing at home to Iceland by three goals to nil a few days before the monumental Spanish result has reinforced the belief among some observers that the team has no problem in a ‘David and Goliath’ showdown but struggle against the minnows. If Northern Ireland are to qualify, they must display a single-minded determination to succeed.

Including Spain, the other teams in the group are certainly beatable. It remains to be seen, however, if the well-publicised fraught relationship between team Manager Lawrie Sanchez and sections of the local media will galvanise the team or undermine their confidence.

This observer reckons the former, but only time will tell.

While the international prospect is heartening, the domestic scene has commenced with the introduction of Donegal Celtic to the Carnegie Irish League Premier Division. It promises to be another enthralling season, with perennial favourites and current champions Linfield recognised by many as the team to beat.

Ominously for everyone else, Linfield manager David Jeffrey has strengthened his squad over the summer months with the acquisition of Timmy Adamson from Dungannon Swifts. Experienced players such as Glenn Ferguson and Noel Bailie together with in-form striker Peter Thompson make Linfield many people’s favourites to collect another Premier League trophy this season.

An opening day defeat at home to Cliftonville has proven that the ‘Windsor Blues’ are not unbeatable.

The closest competition to Linfield is expected to come from their east Belfast rivals Glentoran. Under the leadership of manager Paul Millar, and with players such as Chris Morgan and Michael Halliday a threat to any opposition, the ‘Oval’ boys can never be discounted from mounting a serious challenge.

The mid-Ulster duo of Portadown and Glenavon have the playing resources to pose problems to the Belfast teams, while newly promoted Donegal Celtic and Tyrone representatives Dungannon Swifts both have a promising blend of youth and experience and possess the ability to finish in the top half of the table.

The last team from Northern Ireland to fall in this season’s European Club Competition was Derry City. The Brandywell team played French superstars Paris St Germain with a decent chance of reaching the Group stages of the UEFA Cup, but the Frenchmen overwhelmed them in the end.

With so many promising facets of local football, it is not difficult for followers of the game to get carried away and believe that a qualification for a European Championship or World Cup Tournament is just around the corner.

The reality is that smaller nations find it increasingly difficult to qualify from the European group stages due to FIFA adjusting the overall balance to be more equitable to the other continents such as Africa and Asia.

For the first time since the mid-1980s, however, Northern Ireland supporters can dare to dream about the team qualifying for a major tournament. This in itself is immense progress when one pauses to recall only a few years ago the sequence of games when the team simply couldn’t score. So credit to Lawrie Sanchez and the players.

Local teams are also beginning to supply players to the international team, such as Peter Thompson and Alan Mannus at Linfield while Derry City’s Darren Kelly has been tipped by many to wear the green and white shirt in the near future.

The current interest and positive climate in Northern Irish soccer looks set to continue. Watch this space for more dazzling achievements.