Friday, March 30, 2007
More plaudits for Northern Ireland after their 2-1 win against Sweden, which leaves them top of a group they were seeded sixth in. David Healy scored both goals, bringing his total for the qualifiers so far to nine, the top scorer overall. For a team that went two years without scoring a single goal at international level before Lawrie Sanchez took over, this is phenomenal.
Of course there are many Irish people north and south that will refuse to follow the Northern Irish side, identifying it with bigoted elements tied to Linfield and Portadown, but this is unfair to a side that, unlike Rangers, has never excluded players on the basis of their religion. I may always support the Republic when they play the North - and were Steve Staunton's stumbling outfit to face them now, that would be no different - and neither would I have any qualms about the FAI poaching Sanchez to replace Staunton, but the North for me are a suitable back-up option to support. The position they are in at the moment, having taken seven points off Spain, Sweden and Denmark is amazing considering they count only one Premiership player among their number, and they were missing him the other night.
And, yes, I would love to see an All-Ireland football team but this is unlikely to happen because, unlike rugby, cricket and hockey (and Gaelic sports too) football is a true mirror of society. The reason there is not an All-Ireland team in football is because the working classes on all of the island play it, and regrettably they are not ready to all get along with one another just yet. Until that happens I hope that both Irelands qualify for the finals and I will support the North if they do, provided we avoid one another. Lawrie Sanchez started his managerial career over ten years ago at Sligo Rovers and we have fond memories of his brief reign, bringing us to an FAI Cup semi-final (as holders) and finishing fifth in the league. When he left he had the decency to recommend his mate Steve Cotteril - now in charge at Burnley - who had Rovers playing some of the best football ever seen at the Showgrounds, brought us to the League Cup final (where we were beaten on penalties by Shels in a thriller), finished third in the league and drew 3-3 with Champions' League semi-finalists Nantes in the Inter-Toto Cup. Sanchez, like Cotteril, is an astute reader of the game and a capable manager who had the benefit of starting with a realistic challenge in League of Ireland football, unlike poor old Steve Staunton. It is amazing that people up north were calling for Sanchez's head as recently as September.