When the Irish Football Association last month offered a £1 million bonus to the Northern Ireland national team as an incentive for qualifying for UEFA EURO 2008, it was a promise that few expected to see them ever compelled to honour.
After all, save for one memorable recent win over England, this tiny football nation - the smallest ever to compete in a FIFA World Cup™ prior to Trinidad and Tobago's involvement at Germany 2006 - has done little over the past two decades to suggest that a return to the heady days of Spain 82 or Mexico 86 was possible, never mind likely. Infamously, there was even a run of 1,298 minutes without a goal, spanning fully 15 matches under former coach Sammy McIlroy, and though this sequence was halted in Lawrie Sanchez's first match in charge, the fact that match ended in a 4-1 defeat to Norway understandably served to dampen any sense of enthusiasm.
As a consequence, when Northern Ireland opened their EURO 2008 qualifying campaign with a 3-0 home reverse to Iceland - this in a group that also includes Spain, Sweden and Denmark - the cynics scoffed at the mere notion of qualification and ridiculed the IFA's million-pound bonus. However, achieving the seemingly impossible has been the hallmark of Sanchez' career, and though there were calls for him to resign in the wake of that humbling opening match loss, his critics might have done well to examine this particular coach's credentials for reviving flagging hopes.
As a player, after all, the man born 47 years ago this week in London to an Ecuadorian father and a Northern Irish mother is best remembered for one of football's great fairytale moments: his winning goal in the 1988 English FA Cup final that saw the then mighty Liverpool toppled by the now-defunct Wimbledon. A decade later, he returned as a manager to the semi-finals of the same competition with third division outfit Wycombe Wanderers, and though Liverpool just managed to exact some belated revenge with a narrow 2-1 win, the affect on Sanchez' managerial reputation was enough to convince the IFA to appoint him as McIlroy's successor in January 2004.
At the time, football in the province had reached a low ebb. Sniggered at throughout Europe for a goalless run that had contributed to them finishing anchored to the foot of their EURO 2004 preliminary section, the team that Sanchez inherited was low on confidence and, according to its many critics, just as short on talent.
Perhaps as a result, the new coach opted for a trio of modest initial targets: a goal, a win, and some progress up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings. Yet when all three were achieved within two months of him taking charge, Northern Irish supporters once again dared to dream, and following up that win over England with a draw against Portugal provided the basis for believing that EURO 2008 might not be an unrealistic fantasy after all.
Few saw the Iceland defeat coming, but absolutely no-one predicted what followed four days later when Spain visited Windsor Park. Twice, Northern Ireland handed Luis Aragones' side the lead, but on each occasion they battled back valiantly and, in the end, emerged with a thoroughly deserved 3-2 win.
Yet, for many, even more surprising than the result was Sanchez' post-match behaviour, which saw him refuse media interviews and throw his IFA blazer into the crowd in a gesture widely perceived as a farewell. Stung by harsh press coverage in the wake of the defeat to Iceland, the coach was eventually cajoled by fans and the IFA into staying on, though he later claimed to have been "astonished" at the level of criticism to which he had been subjected.
It failed, nevertheless, to take the shine off a magnificent achievement for both coach and players, and when Northern Ireland continued their recovery by drawing away to Denmark and earning a 1-0 win over EURO 2004 finalists Latvia, Sanchez felt able to talk up their chances of booking a ticket to Austria and Switzerland. "If we play like we did against Spain and Denmark for the rest of the campaign, we'll be there or thereabouts," said the coach, whose next assignment is to guide his team through a double-header away to Liechtenstein and at home to Sweden. "If we go into the halfway break with 10 points, it will stir us up. We're a long way from qualifying, but if we get the points from our next games, it will be interesting for the end of next season."
Healy the hero
For Sanchez, taking seven points from a possible nine against Spain, Denmark and Latvia also enabled him to realise a long-held ambition: surpassing neighbours Republic of Ireland in FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Not only that, Northern Ireland broke into the top 50 for the first time in a decade, and sit proudly in 45th place, four clear of the Republic and 79 positions higher than when Sanchez took charge.
"Fans don't expect us to win every game," the coach said recently, "but they expect pride from players wearing the shirt - and they have that now. Whether we will get to the finals, who knows? We have played four games, and it is job done. We can look at the table for five months and see that after a poor start we have recovered amazingly well. This group of players have shown great resilience, great determination and great self-belief."
Collective spirit may be the key to Northern Ireland's revival, but there is no denying that their EURO 2008 qualifying campaign has also witnessed David Healy re-affirm his status as the team's talisman and undisputed star turn. A superb hat-trick against Spain, the first scored by a Northern Ireland player in Belfast since the great George Best, saw him hailed as "a world-class finisher" by his coach, and the Leeds United striker duly justified that description with the decisive strike against Latvia to leave his team joint-second in Group F alongside the Danes.
Spain will be expected to recover from their early problems, of course, and Sweden - with a flawless record thus far - will justifiably fancy their chances of staying top, but with Sanchez at the helm, who would bet against the IFA being called upon to make that million pound payout.