When Northern Ireland last graced the FIFA World Cup™, patrolling the left side of their defence was a 24-year-old by the name of Nigel Worthington. Too young to have appeared in his country's memorable campaign at Spain 1982, the Sheffield Wednesday stalwart was nonetheless a vital member of the team that, four years on, finished third in a formidable group dominated by Brazil and Spain.
Those halcyon days may be but a glorious memory, but while stars such as Gerry Armstrong, Pat Jennings and Norman Whiteside have long since slipped into legend, Worthington is playing a more important role than ever in attempting to guide Northern Ireland back to the world stage. Now in the role of the manager, this patriotic 46-year-old is aiming to inspire his team to go one better than they managed in a UEFA EURO 2008 qualifying campaign that, despite remarkable wins over Spain, Sweden and Denmark, ended in failure.
"That's our aim," he told FIFA.com. "There is a feelgood factor there; we've come off the back of a reasonably good EURO campaign and we need to try to keep that momentum going. We were able to get some very good results against some of the really big names of European football - Spain, Sweden, Denmark - and we simply must take confidence from that.
". It's where every footballer wants to be playing and I do think our boys have got a chance of making it. We're not the favourites, and rightly so, but I'd like to think we'll be in there challenging come the end."
Yet if this country of fewer than two million people is once again to be represented at football's global showpiece, Worthington must first remedy an away record that put paid to their dreams of a place at EURO 2008. With Northern Ireland preparing to kick off their preliminary campaign with a potentially perilous trip to Slovakia on Saturday, the significance of this challenge does not escape him.
"That's been a problem for Northern Ireland for as long as I can remember now," he said, "certainly for the last 15 to 20 years. There's certainly no point in us beating the likes of Spain and Sweden if we're going away to Iceland and Latvia and getting turned over. If we've any realistic ambitions of qualifying for major championships, our away results must improve, it's as simple as that."
Taking points away to Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and San Marino is sure to be vital if Northern Ireland are to harbour hopes of progressing from Group 3 in the UEFA Zone. Worthington declared himself "reasonably happy" with his side's fate following the Preliminary Draw in Durban and while acutely aware that they will begin the preliminary campaign as overwhelming underdogs, he insists it is a role in which they feel entirely comfortable.
"It doesn't bother me," he said. "I quite like being considered the underdogs, I think it suits us. The team spirit that comes with that feeling is so vital to us and it's helped give a nice club feel to the squad. That togetherness is vital to us, and I prefer to dwell on that than on individual players because it's in the team unit that our strength lies. I do think now that any team coming to Windsor Park realises that they're in for a real game."
McDonald's FIFA World Cup Predictor
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