Northern exposure

A GREAT tradition of any World Cup or European Championship is watching one of the Home Nations get incredibly close to qualifying, only to miss out in a manner so agonising that it would be no surprise to see Ant and Dec come on to the pitch to offer a consoling arm round the shoulder.

For instance, in the 1970s and 80s, no international tournament seemed complete unless Wales had missed out on qualification by the thinnest of margins, usually after being on the wrong end of an outrageous penalty decision against Scotland.

Since they last reached the finals of a major tournament in 1998, Scotland themselves have had a couple of heartbreaking qualification near-misses too.

And who could forget plucky little England, under the leadership of Steve McClaren, as they came within a whisker of getting the draw they needed against Croatia to shock the football world and reach Euro 2008?

This time, the role of heroic failures looks set to be filled by Northern Ireland. Nigel Worthington’s team have two World Cup qualifiers remaining – against Slovakia in Belfast on Wednesday, and against the Czech Republic in Prague next month. If they win them both, they will probably qualify for next year’s finals in South Africa. Even if they don’t, they’ve got a fair chance of finishing second in their group and going into a play-off.

This is a run that has been coming. Under Lawrie Sanchez, Northern Ireland deservedly beat England in the qualifiers for the last World Cup (prompting an extraordinary performance from TV pundit Ian Wright, who claimed he was too upset to offer any analysis, which made me wonder if the BBC should have responded by claiming they were too upset to pay him).

And in the qualifiers for Euro 2008, they managed a memorable victory at Windsor Park over Spain, who went on to win the whole tournament. (I think this effectively means that Northern Ireland are champions of Europe.)

I would love to see them qualify for next summer’s World Cup – but after watching Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Poland in Chorzow, I don’t think they will. Northern Ireland played brilliantly, but they looked like a team running out of steam with the finishing line in sight.

They were great in the first half, seeing off Poland’s attacking threat, creating a few chances themselves and going in front just before half-time thanks to a smartly-taken goal from Rangers striker Kyle Lafferty.

The problem was that Lafferty went off with a knee injury early in the second half, and his replacement Martin Paterson, of Burnley, had a bit of a mare – failing to make the most of a promising counter-attack by hitting a tame shot straight at the keeper when there were team-mates better placed had he passed, and then missing a one-on-one when sent clear by Steven Davis.

Paterson has never scored for his country, and has yet to find the net in five appearances for Burnley this season. On Saturday night, he looked a striker short on confidence. Yet if Lafferty doesn’t recover from injury in time – and it looks as though he won’t – Paterson could in be in the starting line-up on Wednesday night.

He needs to regain his self-belief quickly, as Northern Ireland don’t have much strength in depth. To cover for Lafferty’s likely absence, Worthington has called up Billy Kee, a teenage striker who hasn’t even been making the starting up at Accrington of late.

It didn’t help that neither Paterson (5ft 9in) nor strike partner David Healy (5ft 8in) looked capable of winning many headers against Poland’s centre-backs – with the result that every time Maik Taylor kicked the ball downfield, it came straight back. As BBC Northern Ireland’s commentator Jackie Fullerton put it: “It’s not quite like the Alamo yet, but it’s getting close.”

Sure enough, with 10 minutes left, Poland got an equaliser – which Fullerton, and several other journalists, bafflingly credited to Mariusz Lewandowski, even though TV replays clearly showed it to be an Aaron Hughes own goal.

Fullerton’s commentary style was, to say the least, eccentric. His commentary – delivered in a mid-Atlantic drawl that wouldn’t have sounded out of place introducing a Tammy Wynette record on Radio 2 – was warm and enthusiastic, and it was clear that he wanted Northern Ireland to do well. So clear, in fact, that he repeatedly broke Richie Benaud’s golden rule of sports commentary by referring to Worthington’s team was “we”.

A shame, really, as Fullerton’s first-half aside that he had been temporarily distracted from the action because he thought a Polish engineer was trying to steal his mobile phone would have been right at home on Test Match Special.

I also particularly enjoyed the discussion he instigated with co-commentator John O’Neill during the second half as to how long there was to go. Fullerton speculated that there might be “17 or 18 minutes”, then revised the estimate downwards, having remembered that the second half had kicked off late. It seemed that no one was able to communicate to him that the viewers at home could see a clock in the top corner of their TV screen, telling them that there were 15 minutes remaining.

Sure, it wasn’t the slickest commentary there has ever been, and it was a tad on the biased side, but it did convey the tension of a match that was gripping from the start, and almost unbearably tense by the end.

There’s going to be plenty more tension before Northern Ireland find out whether they have qualified for their first World Cup finals since 1986. If they did, it would be a remarkable achievement. But I’ve seen this story before. And it doesn’t end well.

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