Worthington happy to stay put
© AFP

The increasing pre-eminence of club football is a source of considerable concern to many within the beautiful game, and to none more so than the men and women heading up the various national associations. Within the last couple of years alone, after all, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Finland have all lost their coaches to teams in the English and Scottish top flights, with Blackburn Rovers tempting Mark Hughes, Rangers swooping for Walter Smith, Birmingham City luring away his successor, Alex McLeish, and Fulham first appointing Lawrie Sanchez and then replacing him with Roy Hodgson.

However, while the glamour and financial rewards available to high-profile club managers have never been greater, the carrot of leading one's country to a FIFA World Cup™ finals remains as enticing as ever for countless coaches. Nigel Worthington is one such example. The 46-year-old earned considerable esteem for his role in Northern Ireland's remarkable UEFA EURO 2008 qualifying campaign, which included memorable wins over Spain, Sweden and Denmark and left them in with a chance of advancing until their very last fixture.

Nevertheless, despite the disappointment at coming so close but ultimately failing to reach a major championship, Worthington - who previously enjoyed stints in charge at Leicester City, Norwich City and Blackpool - has resisted the temptation to return to club football to instead commit his future to the team with whom he earned 66 caps as a player. A recently-signed two-year contract will see the Ballymena-born coach on until the end of Northern Ireland's South Africa 2010 qualifying campaign - and, Worthington hopes, beyond - with the challenge of taking his country back to a FIFA World Cup having proved simply too good to turn down.

"I am delighted it's all done," Worthington said, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com. "I was always pretty confident the contract could be sorted but it's nice to have it all signed and sealed once and for all. The fact is, I have thoroughly enjoyed being Northern Ireland manager and it's a job I'm more than happy to continue in.

"The appeal of club football is undeniable, and I'd be lying if I said there weren't times when I missed the day-to-day involvement with the players that you get when you're managing a club side. When you go months between matches, you do miss the banter that flies about the training ground.

"But I have a great job here and I'm certainly kept busy in between matches with the association's PR work. That kind of stuff is very good for the association and I enjoy getting out there and seeing the young people, promoting football in the community."

Memories of Mexico

If there is a major downside to international management, it is clearly those long months between fixtures, and more pertinently the massive gap between qualifying campaigns for those who miss out on the major competitions. Yet while Worthington's ex-Scotland counterpart Alex McLeish cited the nine-month lull between EURO 2008 and South Africa 2010 preliminaries as a key reason in his decision to move to Birmingham, the Northern Ireland boss can see the flip-side to that particular coin and believes his players will be grateful for the break.

"There is certainly a long time to wait between the end of the EURO qualifiers and the start of World Cup matches," said Worthington, whose team begin their road to South Africa away to Slovakia on 6 September. "But to be honest I think the managers miss it more than the players.

"I can appreciate from a playing point of view that with all the fixtures the lads have at their clubs, it puts a huge amount of pressure on the body. My feeling is that the breather will do them no harm whatsoever. In any case, we have a couple of friendly games coming up (against Bulgaria on 2 February and Georgia on 26 March) and they will be ideal in terms of preparing us for the very tough task that lies ahead."

That task was, of course, mapped out in Durban on 25 November, when Northern Ireland were drawn in an intriguing section alongside Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and San Marino. Taking the only automatic slot in such company certainly represents a tall order, but with memories of those David Healy-inspired heroics against the Spaniards, Swedes and Danes still fresh in his mind, Worthington is upbeat, although he admits that consistency will be the key.

"I was reasonably happy with the draw," he said. "Poland and the Czechs will be strong, we know that, and Slovakia and Slovenia are no mugs. The fact is, we're not good enough to take any team lightly and we will have to battle home and away for absolutely every point that's up for grabs. You look back to the six points we lost to Iceland and the three we conceded to Latvia in EURO qualifying: I don't want that happening again.

"But I was obviously fortunate enough to play in a World Cup finals (at Mexico 1986) and they're wonderful occasions. 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."