A Worthy Cause

Cathal Coyle profiles NI manager Nigel Worthington

The wait is finally over. Nigel Worthington is officially the new Northern Ireland manager, at least until the conclusion of the Euro 2008 qualification series in November. Worthington will aim to regain NI's position in first place in a group that also contains heavyweights such as Spain and Sweden as well as minnows Latvia and Liechtenstein. 

So what about the new man in charge? Born in Ballymena in November 1961, Worthington became a household name with Sheffield Wednesday, holding a decade-long command of the South Yorkshire club from 1984 to 1994. 

Worthington first attracted prominence attention as a rampaging full back with his first English club Nottingham County, whom he signed for in 1981 from his hometown club Ballymena United. He went on to represent NI in 66 internationals, the pinnacle of his playing career the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico.

Worthington developed a reputation for being a tough tackling, no-nonsense defender with Sheffield Wednesday, and played a vital role in the emergence of Wednesday as a leading club in English football during the 80s and 90s. 

The finest achievement of the Yorkshire side in this era was when they defeated Manchester United in the League Cup final in 1991, their first piece of silverware since 1935. In the following two seasons their stock grew higher, with a third place league finish in 1992 and an FA Cup final appearance against Arsenal a year later. Worthington was an important factor in this success and was appointed captain of Northern Ireland during the latter part of his Wednesday career.

Following this successful spell with Sheffield Wednesday, Worthington moved to Yorkshire rivals Leeds United in 1994 to add much needed stability and experience to their defence. Two seasons were spent at Elland Road before Worthington was given the opportunity to become player-manager at Lancashire side Blackpool. He soon retired from playing to take on sole managerial duties, but two and a half seasons in charge unfortunately ended with his resignation following a worrying dip in form that saw the club in the middle of a relegation battle.

Former Northern Ireland manager Bryan Hamilton gave Worthington the opportunity to become his assistant at Norwich City during the 1999-2000 season. Following Hamilton's resignation after a poor start to the season and five consecutive defeats, Worthington was appointed caretaker manager of Wednesday in December 2000 and then given the role full time following an assured run of results, eventually finishing the season in the safety of 15th place. 

Having established his managerial credentials, Worthington urged his team to play with confidence and was rewarded with a play-off final appearance the following season. A heartbreaking defeat on penalties followed, this time against Birmingham City.

The 2003-04 season brought the greatest managerial achievement of Worthington’s career to date, winning promotion to the Premiership as First Division Champions with a club record of 96 points. The manager showed his persuasive talents by urging the club board of directors to buy Darren Huckerby on a permanent basis. This proved a master stroke by Worthington, and after defeating local rivals Ipswich Town at Christmas Norwich eased their way to the Championship title, finishing eight points clear of nearest challengers West Bromwich Albion.

In Norwich’s first season back in the big time, they enjoyed wins against Manchester United, however 'the canaries’ were relegated by a single point margin in May 2005. The team conceded 77 goals and held the worst defensive record in the Premiership. There was little chance in the club maintaining their Premiership status. 

Further miserable form in the Championship meant a parting of the ways between club and manager. A short stint at Leicester City whetted Worthington's appetite for a permanent return to management duties, and when the National job became available, he felt that he couldn’t pass it by:

'When your country comes knocking there can only be one answer and I am honoured to be given this opportunity. Qualifying from this group is a challenge I shall relish.'

'Worthy’ has enjoyed an eventful playing and managerial career and has a lot more to offer the game of football. No doubt he aims to emulate his former mentor Billy Bingham, who led Northern Ireland into the '86 finals, and one clear objective for Worthington is to win as many of the remaining six group games from August until November 2007. Delivery of this would at least ensure a few cheers in Ballymena to celebrate a 22 year gap being bridged.