It is May 1991 and the Qualifying Group 4 for Euro 1992 in Sweden pits Northern Ireland against a new football nation, the Faroe Islands. The Faroes had experienced a glorious entrance into the competitive arena with an astonishing 1-0 victory over Austria to momentarily top the group.
However, subsequent matches had equated to a restoration of reality and their form could best be described as consistent. For NI, their tests against the two powerhouses of the group, Yugoslavia (yes it was that long ago) and Denmark had failed to yield any positive results.
Yet their draw in Vienna indicated they were a bankable third for the final standings (indeed this is how it turned out). So despite some clear limitations in terms of quality, Colin Clarke, Kingsley Black et al were expected to be far too much for their part-time opponents.
Watch highlights of the game on YouTube and indeed that is essentially how the game played out in every way other than the final scoreline. Wave after wave of green pressure was somehow foiled by Knudsen, the Faroes’ goalkeeper famous for wearing what looked like a swimming cap. Eventually the goal comes. Wilson’s free kick, Dowie heads across. Clarke could not miss. Cue the massacre…
The pattern after the break is much the same – Black, who was quite a player before his injuries, torments the visitors but either the final ball lets him down or others contrive to fluff the opportunity. The Faroes’ scramble defence is chaotic yet brave, and their blocking of shots bordering on heroic. Then, out of nowhere, break down the left – who’s tracking the runner? Looping header, equaliser. Oh dear…for the remainder, it is utter carnage and all in one half of the pitch. The green shirts do everything but score. Sometimes it is not to be, and there is no get out of jail card at the death like there would be in Serravelle for their neighbours 15 years later.
So Nigel Worthington, part of the national squad back then, knows there is more than just the three points to motivate his players as they play the Faroes this afternoon. The 5-0 win in Toftir that autumn may have done some instant repair to the pride of the team, and NI did indeed finish third in that group. However, the dreadful result on their own turf had occurred when there was still the semblance of something to play for (we were not to know at the time, but second place would actually have qualified them for the finals in Sweden).
Tuesday afternoon gives them an opportunity to lay that ghost to rest, as well as putting themselves in an immensely strong position for when qualifying resumes next year. Of all the home nations bar England, Northern Ireland is the one this writer most wants to qualify for Euro 2012. They should win today, but need to retain their focus and remember that you are never, ever safe at 1-0. Worthington knows this as well anyone.