MAGAZINE ARCHIVE : NI FOOTBALL – SUMMER 2008

Nigel Worthington, manager of Northern Ireland, is the cover star of NI Football during the Summer of 2008.

There is a profile of Andrew Waterworth, who has just won promotion to the SPL with Hamilton Academical, and is looking forward to playing at Celtic Park and Ibrox, hoping that he can break into the Northern Ireland team. He also says he is learning a lot from his team-mate James McCarthy, even though he is a few years younger than him.

He signed for Glentoran that summer.

Cover star Worthington gets interviewed as he reflects on his first year in charge of the national team, and looking forward to the forthcoming 2010 World Cup Qualifiers.

He spoke highly of Michael O’Connor, who made his international debut in a recent friendly against Georgia, and he gets a full page interview.

He would have been hoping to get a cap in the upcoming away friendly against Scotland in August, which gets a preview.

There is a review of the three divisions, which saw Linfield win their third successive title.

The Setanta Cup is taking place across two Irish League seasons, and the second half of the group stages gets previewed ahead of the group stage resuming in September.

As well as winning the league, Linfield won the Irish Cup in 2008, and the final, a 2-1 win over Coleraine, gets a two page review.

Paul Leeman spills the beans on his Glentoran team-mates, revealing that Sean Ward is nicknamed “Google” because he knows everything.

Off the pitch, the IFA have been recognised by UEFA for their marketing success.

In ads, there are adverts for Linfield and Glentoran’s new kits, both made by Umbro, side by side on successive pages.

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PERHAPS THE GRASS ISN’T ALWAYS GREENER ELSEWHERE

An interesting story that grabbed my attention today, was that of the problems of the FAI in selling corporate boxes and seats at the new Aviva Stadium.

I would have some sympathy if it wasn’t for Liam Brady spending so much time phoning Northern Ireland youngsters with his “Mother Ireland” monologue.

Perhaps cutting down on their phone bill would be a start.

When the final verdict was announced in the player eligability case, it was mentioned by some about Northern Ireland fans boycotting the forthcoming Carling Nations Cup as a form of protest to get back at the FAI.

Such a suggestion might have been laughed at, but suddenly, a weakness has emerged, and Northern Ireland fans have something the FAI want, money.

If you can’t sell out games against Manchester United and Argentina, then you need to have a serious look at you marketing strategy, especially, your pricing policy.

It’s very easy to make people want to buy your product, but it’s just as easy to stop people from buying your product (either in terms of making it too expensive, or having to go to a third party),

For Dublin, it could easily have read Lisburn, as the Aviva Stadium, was highlighted by the pro-Maze lobby as the template for the national stadium for our utopian vision of the future.

“But they have a new stadium”

“But they have friendlies against Brazil and Argentina”

“But they have this, but they have that ………”

In other words, the “Keeping up with the Joneses” attitude in Northern Ireland football, where ideas get floated without thought because they have it in England/Scotland/Republic of Ireland, rather than if we actually need it.

Perhaps sometimes, the grass isn’t always greener elsewhere.

FAIR PLAY? INTEGRITY? DON’T MAKE ME LAUGH

It was inevitable, but it doesn’t make it any less disappointing, as the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s ruling on player eligibility means that the FAI now have a green light to basically steal Northern Ireland born players with no blood links to the Republic of Ireland with no recriminations whatsoever.

There’s nothing that I can add that I haven’t already mention on my previous blog. The FAI have been acting like school bullies in this case, and their reaction to this decision will no doubt be smirking and giggling to themselves, like a bunch of school bullies who have been caught red-handed, hauled before the principal ………… and gotten away with it.

Credit to the IFA for fighting this all the way, but the battle may have been lost in the courts, but it still isn’t over.

Sadly, this abhorrition of a ruling means that the FAI are free to rape and pillage the IFA’s player resources, but there is nothing to stop the IFA from encouraging young players to play for them, and resist the lure of the FAI.

Whatever it takes, when a player is brought into the youngest age team, the IFA must double, even triple, their efforts to make sure it is a career-long relationship.

Sadly, when watching the Under-19 Milk Cup Final between Northern Ireland and USA, you couldn’t help but wonder how many of those players would one day play for the senior Northern Ireland team.

Such curiousities are quite normal, but the question sadly isn’t “Will they be good enough to play for Northern Ireland?”, but “Will they be poached by the Republic of Ireland?”

Like I said in my previous blog, this is a sneaky and under-hand way of trying to create a MK Dons-esque “All-Ireland Team”.

Though player defections are the exception rather than the norm, if it isn’t tackled head on, it will become the norm rather than the exception, creating an All-Ireland team, with Northern Ireland being seen as nothing more than a reserve team for this “Utopian Vision”.

It may be hard to take, but I hope the IFA must be strong on this issue, and I hope that any player who comes crawling back after defecting isn’t considered for selection.

It may sound controversial (I fully expect people to queue up to be offended by it) but a clear message needs to be sent out that our national team is not a “1am, any girl will do” option in a footballer’s career, should the fairy story that got fed to them not turn out to be true.

No doubt, people will be quick to counter that by pointing out George McCartney, but there is a difference. George McCartney didn’t refuse to play for Northern Ireland, he refused to play for Lawrie Sanchez.

It’s very naive to suggest that the background of the players they are taking is merely coincidental.

A dangerous precedent is being set with this recuritment policy, potentially dividing our football into “The prads play for da norf and da kafflics play for da souf”

I certainly have my doubts that FAI scouts ventured up to Rathcoole to try and poach Jonny Evans.

After all, a young player tipped for great things at Manchester United would surely be the sort of player you would be interested in if he was available?

It is important to distinguish that religion and nationality are two different and unrelated matters and, shock horror, you can be a catholic and play for Northern Ireland, and be proud to do so, like Jim Magilton, who spoke out against the defections recently in the Belfast Telegraph.

Though ironically in Northern Ireland, those who are quick to total up the quotas of P’s and C’s, are often disinterested in the subject they are totalling.

Put simply, those who are quick to comment about how many Protestants are in the Northern Ireland team, and how many Catholics there are in the Northern Ireland team, don’t actually support or care about the Northern Ireland team.

With the impending Celtic Cup due to take place in 2011, the IFA must consider their involvement in this competition.

Quite how IFA suits would co-operate and cosy up to their FAI counterparts in the organisation of this competition, having been treated so shabbily by them would be beyond me.

If Wayne Bridge can sacrifice playing in a World Cup having been treated with utter contempt and betrayed by John Terry, then there’s nothing to stop the IFA from sacrificing the Celtic Cup.

If you’ve got some clout, why not use it?

Without sounding arrogant, the Celtic Cup would collapse without Northern Ireland (or indeed, any of the other competing nations) in the same way the British Championship collapsed once England and Scotland.

There would certainly be some form of poetic justice if any divisions caused by this happened to the Republic of Ireland team, as Southern born players get resentful of Northern Ireland born players taking their places in the team.

I know that if I was born in the Republic of Ireland, worked hard at football, got a call-up to the national team, then had my place taken by a blow-in with no affiliation to the team, I would certainly be resentful.

And there’s only so long you can supress resentment like that.

Sadly, this has been a lonely battle for Northern Ireland. We’ve had to fight this alone, with no cheerleading from the mainstream UK media.

The final word, or possibly the final three words, deserve to go to FAI Chief Executive John Delaney.

Last November, he was quite happy to talk about ‘fair play’ and ‘integrity’ in the aftermath of the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup Qualifying defeat to France. Sadly, it’s something his organisation preaches but doesn’t practice.

Fair play? Integrity? Don’t make me laugh.

FAIL TO PREPARE, PREPARE TO FAIL

Despite being finally put to bed last week, the ghost of the Newry v Larne debacle is continuing to haunt the IFA from beyond the grave.

The postponement of tonight’s replay has plunged the competition into further crisis as the replay will take on Saturday, the Quarter-Final against Coleraine for the winners, with a replay now scheduled for the date of the Semi-Finals, with Linfield fans not only cheering their team on against Glentoran on Easter Tuesday, but keeping an eye on another match in order to know if their team has a match the following Saturday.

Just think, if the business over the Newry v Larne game was handled in an efficient manner, the Newry v Loughgall tie would have been decided in mid-February.

Due to Linfield’s Setanta Cup commitments, the only free midweek is set aside for the replay (which would now be used for the Semi-final) meaning that if there was to be a replay, this would have to take place in the midweek between the conclusion of the league season, and the Irish Cup Final, with the winning team having to arrange sale of tickets and supporters having to arrange transport and events at a few days notice.

Put simply, it’s a farcical situation that should never have been allowed to get this far. Regular readers of this blog will know that this has been my viewpoint ever since it is escalated to an unacceptable level, not a reaction to my club being dragged into this mess.

It’s not often Linfield fans are jealous of Ballymena United and Portadown fans, but this is one of them. they know who they are due to play in the next round of the cup, whilst Linfield fans won’t know the final arrangements of their tie until the week of the game.

Surely, when the 6th round took place with only 7 fixtures, and Coleraine were drawn against one of three teams, alarm bells should have been ringing?

If that wasn’t enough, surely a Quarter-Final weekend with only three games where Linfield were drawn against one of four teams in the Semi-Final draw. Forget alarm bells, a bloody siren should have went off.

A lot has been made of the fact that nine teams were in the draw for the Irish Cup Semi-Finals. That wasn’t the farce. It’s not inconcievable that you could have four drawn Quarter-Finals resulting in eight teams in the draw. The real farce was, that one of the pots had four teams in it.

Almost un-noticed is the postponement of the game between Coleraine and Portadown, one of two games still to be played before the split. With the post-split fixtures already being decided by the teams being allocated numbers based on their provisional positions, the logical decision would be to let that game take place at another free date between now and the end of the season.

Unfortuantely, this game is to decide who gets the last top six split, and therefore, must be played as soon as possible as a matter of urgency.

This is the second successive season since the league was restructured, that fixture chaos has reigned. Last season, it all began at the start thankfully with plenty of time to rectify the situation, as various midweeks were taken up with County Antrim Shield, Setanta Cup and CIS Cup ties delayed the rescheduling of various league fixtures in need of re-arranging.

Sadly, for the second successive season, the IFA are finding that scheduling a 38 game league season rather than a 30 game season is a lot harder than it looks. Not even reducing the CIS Cup by three games, is helping to free up space.

So what can be done?

The most obvious victim is the County Antrim Shield, a competition sadly long past it’s sell-by date and not even on the radar of fans, who barely raise a groan when their team is eliminated or a cheer when their team wins it.

Questions must be raised at the scheduling of CIS Cup ties on Saturdays. I can understand the idea of 3rd round ties taking place on a Saturday, as an experiment. Sadly, it was an experiment which never really worked.

What baffled me was the scheduling of Quarter-Final ties on a Saturday in December, with various teams inactive on the biggest football day of the week, surely this Saturday could have been better used by arranging a league programme that day?

This fixture cahous, a result of a knock-on effect of postponements throughout December, January and February during (might I add, a once in a lifetime series of weather) adverse weather conditions has once again provided ammunition for advocates of Summer football.

What the pro-Summer football brigade will ignore, is the fact the League Of Ireland games this week have been postponed, as was five out of six Irish League games during a programme in August 2008.

We have to accept that we live in a country where we are at the mercy of the weather all year round. It’s not the adverse weather that is the problem in Irish League football, it’s the lack of free dates in which to re-arrange games into.

Let’s hope that when the schedule for the 2010-2011 Irish League season is announced, those in charge come up with a pre-emptive solution to this scheduling madness.

TIME TO STAND-UP TO THE SCHOOL BULLIES OF INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL

As the build-up to the first international date of 2010 nears, inevitably, there will be much interest into the names of those who get call-ups. It is a World Cup year after all.

Sadly for Northern Ireland, the focus is not on South Africa, but Poland and Ukraine, and the qualifiers for Euro 2012.

But sadder than that, is that the attention is not on who is in the squad for next week’s friendly against Albania, but rather, who isn’t in it.

Shane Duffy of Everton and Marc Wilson of Portsmouth would have been expected to in the squad, if it wasn’t for the fact that they have declared to play for the Republic of Ireland, despite representing Northern Ireland at various underage levels.

So, it appears this agreement in 2007 which the IFA said at the time was “A satisfactory agreement”

Satisfactory? Really?

Is it satisfactory that over two years later, the Northern Ireland national team is still getting shafted in terms of players?

This is a massive test for the IFA, and one that they dare not fail. Having already descended the Irish Cup into farce with their inability to promptly deal with the Newry v Larne violence in an appropriate timeframe, which could see a team paired against Coleraine or Loughgall or Newry or Larne in the Semi-Final draw.

If the IFA roll over on this issue, they will lose the respect and confidence of every football fan in Northern Ireland.

It’s sad that all the work the IFA has done at community level is being undone by the FAI, no doubt taking advantage of Northern Ireland’s troubled history.

Put simply, the FAI are acting like vultures over this issue. Call me cynical, but I seriously doubt the sales pitch they use to impressionable youngsters is that if they work hard and be dedicated, they could one day play on the same team as Sean St Ledger.

There is a massive difference between this and Jack Charlton’s Plastic Paddy’s in the 80s and 90s. The players he picked were all in the mid 20s, and deemed not good enough for the country they were born in. The likes of Wilson, Duffy and Darron Gibson were all wanted by Northern Ireland, yet the FAI just decided to take what they weren’t entitled to.

You would understand players defecting if the Republic of Ireland were serial qualifiers, they’re not. Slovenia, a country with only a couple of hundred thousand people more than Northern Ireland have qualified for three times as many tournaments since 1994 than the Republic of Ireland have.

It’s not as if it’s a case of ‘give and take’ with the player issue, it’s a total imbalance in favour of the Republic. Let’s be realistic here, no youngster from the Republic is going to ever declare for Northern Ireland.

The IFA must stand up to the FAI, nothing more than a bunch of school bullies, who think they can just steal what they like from a smaller kid.

And like any school bully, they are quite good at playing the victim and crying when they get a dose of their own medicine, like in Paris in November.

Feeling hard done after Thierry Henry’s handball in the build-up to William Gallas winning goal, FAI President John Delaney told anyone who would listen that the game should be replayed “For the sake of the integrity of football”

The French response was to shrug their shoulders and ignore the request. After trying to enlist the help of FIFA, they got told that there was nothing they could do.

After begging to get a wildcard entry, the FAI were then subject to worldwide ridicule when Sepp Blatter let the cat out of the bag. It wasn’t a nice feeling.

Well, thats how Northern Ireland fans feel everytime a player switched allegiance.

You would think being shat on from a great height by a bigger nation and finding that those who uphold the rules don’t want to know, the FAI would have some sort of empathy with their Northern counterparts.

Evidently not, they just carry on as they did before, with disregard for the IFA, brushing them aside arrogantly as if Northern Ireland is some sort of footballing non-entity who don’t deserve to have Premier League players play for them.

Put simply, if the IFA want to maintain the credibility of football in Northern Ireland, and their crediblity within football in Northern Ireland, they must stand up to the FAI and ensure this biased injustice and vulture culture is put to an immediate end.

THE DELIVERY OF BAD NEWS

You would think over the last couple of weeks, we’d be used to news of postponed matches in the Irish League.

But it’s not the news that is upsetting people, it’s the way it’s delivered.

Last Wednesday saw the postponement of the County Antrim Shield Final, until a quick thinking person at the County Antrim FA decided that it should be moved to an alternative venue.

That sounds fair enough, you say, but at an afternoon’s notice? seriously? And on a working day.

It’s not inconceivable that a supporter planning to attend this match could have been travelling to The Oval straight from work, or possbily going home to have something to eat and heading straight to the ground.

I’m glad that the match got moved to another venue and got played, though not with the result obviously, but it was the sheer farcical nature that we wouldn’t find up until Wednesday lunchtime of the venue location that has turned the competition organisation into a farce.

There have been occassions in GAA where venues have been moved at a day’s notice because the pitch isn’t fit for use, why did the County Antrim FA not do likewise?

By announcing it on Tuesday, they would have had 24 hours in which to communicate the news.

By targeting the late night news, electronic media and early morning papers, the message of the change of venue can be communicated effectively to their target audience.

It’s not as if Linfield and Crusaders fans are being inconvenienced, as they are two Belfast clubs, who are travelling to an alternative Belfast venue.

So what then, of those people who would work in an environment where there is no internet access or local media consumption.

These people could potentially to the wrong ground to watch a football match.

If the County Antrim FA had planned to move venues in the event of The Oval not passing a pitch inspection, then arrangements and confirmation should have been made on Tuesday, not Wednesday lunchtime.

It’s not the bad news which annoys people, it’s the way it’s delivered.

Another example of that came today when the match bewtween Institute and Linfield was postponed at 1.50pm, 70 minutes before the 3pm kick-off, as many Linfield fans were well on their way to Derry from Belfast.

This, despite the pitch passing a pitch inspection earlier this morning by a local referee brought in to inspect the pitch.

So, why was this situation allowed to happen?

Why did the designated match referee Raymond Crangle not arrive at the stadium at an acceptable time to make a decision for himself, rather than letting someone else make it, only for him to over-rule it?

Will the IFA hold an inquiry into it, as to why visiting fans (and a visiting team) have been inconvenienced in this way?

I’m cynical, that they’ll do nothing, because Irish League referees don’t seem to have any accountability whatsoever, which is a dangerous situation to have.

I’m not having a go at Institute, as they’ve no doubt made every possible effort to get the game on, and their players and fans have been inconvenienced as well.

The postponement is disappointing, but it’s the sheer lack of courtesy that is even more disappointing.

At a time when the Irish League can’t afford to lose any fans, do those in charge really believe this is the proper way to treat their clientele.

It’s just basic customer service, complimented with an effective communication strategy.

Football is unique in relation to other industries in that they already have brand loyalty built in.

But loyalty can only go so far. If people get messed around, they won’t bother to go any more.

And like with all PR own goals involving local football, it always seems to be a short-sighted approach of those in charge which is to blame.