Northern Ireland have had a mixed start to their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign and remain one of Europe’s more enigmatic teams. Kevin Leonard has been keeping up to date with their progess.
In the act of expressing joy for one’s team, many a song sang from the stands can be an exaggeration. Liverpool fans, for example, have taken to re-writing Depeche Mode’s “I Just Can’t Get Enough” by replacing the lyrics with “You Just Can’t Stop Suarez”. As good as Luis Suarez is, it’s not yet quite an actual physical impossibility to stop him. Similarly, Barcelona occasionally remind people that they are “Més que un club”, a statement that the more literal amongst us may call into question. After all, team of players kicking a ball, following the directions of a manager, who are collectively viewed on a weekly basis by a crowd that enjoys watching the kicking of said ball sounds an awful lot like a football club to me.
On the other hand, however, “We’re not Brazil we’re Northern Ireland” is possibly the most truthful melody to be heard around in world football today. Brazilian supporters may consider their current FIFA ranking of fifth place to be a cause of some unhappiness. Northern Ireland, on the other hand comfortably in the in fortieth place in FIFA’s (some might say flawed) ranking system. It’s a defiant song of the humble yet passionate fan; it says “we are what we are” or, alternatively, “we’re shit but we don’t give a flying fuck!”. Expectations of Northern Ireland remain understandably low in comparison with the giants of the world game, but they have offered us tantalising glimpses of what they could be capable of in the past.
Thanks to the magic of Sky Plus, I was able to view the last two fixtures of the Northern Irish Euro 2012 qualification campaign and I must say – to my considerable surprise – that I expected more. This Northern Irish squad may have about as much skill as a cluster of blind hedgehogs in a bag. Their level of technique may stumble over Kyle Lafferty’s long, clumsy legs, whilst David Healy is still David Healy, and always will be. Yet this country has been capable of the occasional memorable result over the years. In attempting to qualify for the last European Championships, the Northern Irish defeated Spanish team that won Euro 2008 and followed that by winning their first World Cup last year by three goals to two at Windsor Park. Two years prior to that victory, in the qualification for Germany 2006, they beat England 1-0, also at Windsor Park. If some of us fickle English fans have forgotten about that night, there is a simple way to recall it – just put your head into your hands, scream loudly enough and it’ll come right back to you like a boomerang on its return journey.
This campaign started out very well with an away win in Slovenia followed by a goalless draw with a rejuvenated Italian side in Belfast. Surely beating the Faroe Islands would be a formality, wouldn’t it? Apparently not. Northern Ireland could only manage a 1-1 draw against Brian Kerr’s team, thus proving Brian Kerr doesn’t need to manage an Irish team to hinder one’s progress and that he doesn’t really mind which one he stops from winning. However, five points from three games was a decent return in a group containing Italy, Serbia and Slovenia, three teams that had qualified for the 2010 World Cup finals.
All of this means there they had reason for optimism heading into their match against Serbia in Belgrade – not only because of the positive start but also because Serbia would be without their passionate supporters, on account of the behaviour of some of them in Genoa last year. Northern Ireland fans were allowed into the stadium, and two hundred and sixty-five of them had made the trip east. You might expect that all this made the game practically a home tie for the boys in green, and when they took the lead through Gareth McAuley after forty minutes they had reason for optimism. It wasn’t, after all, as if Serbia had any fans to urge them on to score and Northern Ireland had their support to urge them to not concede or better yet score again. Sadly, though the real “home” side managed to net twice in a ten minute spell mid-way through the second half and took all three points.
This, however, was not the end of the world for the Northern Irish. Their next game against Slovenia showed promise, given that the successful results mentioned earlier had all come on home soil and that Northern Ireland had already tasted victory against their opponents. On the night, though, a good performance here was not rewarded with all three points. Northern Ireland huffed and puffed and threatened Slovenia on many occasions but couldn’t find a goal, with their best chance falling late on, when a ball intended for the out-stretched leg of Chris Brunt fizzed across the box and agonisingly wide of the post.
All this means that Northern Ireland are second from bottom in the group with one win from five games, although another way of looking at their position would be to say they are in fifth place with just one defeat from their opening five matches. Whether your glass is half-full or half-empty, though, the table still means that Northern Ireland have a reasonable chance of qualification. With three very winnable home fixtures to come against Serbia, Estonia and the Faroe Islands, there is a realistic chance of nine points being chalked up and a point away in Estonia certainly isn’t beyond their capabilities. A lot, though, could depend upon Italy. Northern Ireland travel there to play the final match of the qualifying campaign – should Italy already have qualified, they may choose to rest several of their senior players, and this could benefit Northern Ireland.
Dare we dream that a British that isn’t England may actually reach a competitive tournament? The answer, for now, is that yes, we may well dream. Regarding the remainder of their qualification round, perhaps the most important question is that of which Northern Ireland will turn up? Capable of beating Spain or England, but also of being held by the Faroe Islands, Nothern Ireland remain one of Europe’s more enigmatic national teams. Camp, Lafferty, Brunt, Healy and the rest of you, as Princess Leia said to Obi-Wan Kenobe: “you’re my only hope”.
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