So Long Lawrie Sanchez

Cathal Coyle looks back on three years of NI ups and downs for the Fulham boss

He may have moved on to pastures new, lured by the thrills and spills of premiership football and a staff discount at Harrod's, but Lawrie Sanchez can look back on his three years managing the NI national football team with pride, presiding as he did over something of a golden era for NI football, dragging the team from the bottom of their European qualifying group in 2004 to the top of their qualifying group in 2007.

After a spate of thrilling performances and great results, Sanchez can afford to be well satisfied with his previous team’s progress in the European Cup campaign.

The shock of suffering a 3-0 home defeat by Iceland in the opening game of the Euro 2008 qualification campaign has been compensated for by the victories at home to Spain and Latvia and the draw in Copenhagen against Denmark.

This has placed Northern Ireland in a very strong position to qualify from Group F for the finals in Austria and Switzerland in 2008. Recent events have placed the spotlight firmly on the manager, who has enjoyed a colourful and interesting football career thus far.

(c) Spike HillThree Targets
When Lawrie was appointed as Northern Ireland manager back in February 2004, he set himself three targets: firstly for the team to score a goal, second of all to win a game (NI had failed to win in nearly 3 years), and the third was to ensure that the team climbed the FIFA World Rankings.

The first two objectives were achieved within the first few games, and steadily the team improved and grew in confidence. Landmark victories against the mighty forces of England and Spain improved the team’s ranking significantly to the extent that the latest set of rankings have placed Northern Ireland at number 45 in the world – when Lawrie started the team was ranked number 124, an astounding 79 places beneath!

So what about the man responsible for this meteoric rise? Lawrie Sanchez was born on October 22 1959 in Lambeth, London. His playing career began with Reading between 1977 and 1984 before moving to Wimbledon for £30,000.

He scored the goal that propelled the ‘Dons’ into the English First Division in 1986. Unquestionably the pinnacle of Lawrie’s modest playing career was scoring the winner against raging hot favourites Liverpool in the FA Cup Final in May 1988. This elevated his profile, and while many other clubs became interested, he remained a loyal servant to Wimbledon Football Club.

So why did Lawrie decide to play for Northern Ireland? He was invited to try out for the land of his father, Ecuador, but declined because of the distance travelling to and from the South American nation. So he accepted the invitation from the then Northern Ireland Manager Billy Bingham to play for Northern Ireland. Sanchez's mother came from Belfast. Consequently, three caps were won in 1989.

He was unlucky not to make the desired impact at international level, and with fierce competition for the midfield positions, he focussed his energies on club football for the rest of his playing career.

(c) Spike HillA Managerial Odyssey
In 1993 Lawrie departed from Wimbledon after nine successful years to join newly-promoted Swindon Town, but only after a year he left them to become player manager of League of Ireland Club Sligo Rovers, leading them to the semi-final of the 1995 FAI Cup.

Later that year Lawrie returned to Wimbledon to take charge as reserve-team manager. After four years in charge he moved on to take over the reigns of Wycombe Wanderers and saved the club from relegation in his first season.

Perhaps the most exciting time as Wycombe manager was during the 2000-01 season, when the unfashionable Second Division side progressed to the semi-final of the FA Cup.

Premiership giants Liverpool put a spanner in the works and defeated Sanchez’s team by two goals to one after a close contest. This achievement was the pinnacle of Lawrie’s club career, and following disappointing final placings in the league over the next few seasons, was sacked by Wycombe on September 30, 2003.

(c) Spike HillNational Pride and Statistics
Sanchez didn’t have to wait long for a new job, following the resignation of Sammy McIlroy as manager of Northern Ireland. This rollercoaster ride has culminated in Northern Ireland regaining much of the pride of old, especially given the pedigree of some of the vanquished sides who the green and white army have left trailing in their wake. Asked what the best victory was since he took over the reigns he replied:

‘The recent game against Spain was the first time in a full match that we’d come from behind to win in my 27 games in charge, and not only did we do it once, we did it twice. Against a team of that calibre it showed true character from the players involved.’

Following the dispute with sections of the local media in September, rumours abounded that Sanchez was contemplating a possible move to a club side in the English Championship.

Northern Ireland supporters were naturally dismayed at the prospect of losing the most successful manager since Billy Bingham. Fortunately the manager and the media mended their differences in time for Sanchez to lead the team into battle for their recent victories over Spain and Latvia.

It may be entirely possible that manager Sanchez may achieve what no other previous Northern Ireland manager could and lead his country to European Championship finals. If he does, he will be assured of cult status with the ‘green and white army’, and will be viewed on a par with successful managers such as Bingham, and Peter Doherty who led the country to the 1958 World Cup Finals.

Sanchez is an alumnus of the esteemed Loughborough University in England, where he gained a Business degree. He is no doubt aware of the old adage ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’. If Northern Ireland's progression up the FIFA rankings continues into the top 20 sides in the world, and they simultaneously qualify for Euro 2008, it's one statistic Mr Sanchez would greet with open arms.