Northern Ireland boss Worthington faces tough questions following dismal Estonia defeat

The 4-1 defeat suffered by Northern Ireland at the hands of Estonia on Tuesday has not only ended whatever faint hopes Nigel Worthington’s side harboured of Euro 2012 qualification, but also cast doubt over the future of the manager. Former boss Lawrie Sanchez led the calls for Worthington to be sacked, saying that the country’s football fortunes under the ex-Norwich City manager have got “worse rather than better.” Sanchez’s vested interest aside – the current Barnet manager, formerly of Northern Ireland, expressed an interest in replacing Worthington in the same interview – the national team’s situation is dire and rapidly approaching terminal.

Worthington’s outfit are fifth in Group C, two points behind Slovenia and, most importantly, five points behind Serbia who occupy the group’s play-off spot. Both Northern Ireland and the eastern Europeans have two games left to play but Northern Ireland can only hope to pull Serbia back if Serbia loses to already-confirmed group winners Italy in their next fixture and to Slovenia in their last. Should that happen, Northern Ireland would still require two victories from their final two matches and, since the last of those is away to Italy, it must be considered extremely unlikely.

With the current seeding system in place that guarantees lower-ranked nations such as Northern Ireland a difficult group draw, failure to qualify is not necessarily a sign that Worthington has failed. Instead, the Northern Ireland manager must be judged on different criteria. A slow progress, steadily climbing the international rankings or inching up the group places during qualification is effective success for Northern Ireland and, on this measure, Worthington is performing with mixed results.

For World Cup 2010 qualification, Northern Ireland finished fourth in a six-team group with 15 points, seven off top-ranked Slovakia and five from Slovenia in second. Compared to the current situation – fifth of six teams, five points behind second place and 13 points behind first – Northern Ireland appear to have regressed. However, the bare numbers do not take into account the strength of Italy, the dominant side in the group, or the much more competitive nature of the World Cup table.

The story of Northern Ireland’s World Cup qualification was at least boosted by finishing above Poland and only a point behind the Czech Republic; two nations which most would agree possess greater depth than Worthington’s side. However, that feather in Worthington’s cap has come back to haunt him with Northern Ireland struggling to replicate such feats this time around.

A fall from 29th in the FIFA rankings, when Worthington took over in June 2007, to 63rd now certainly does not reflect kindly on the manager, however, it is also mitigated by the vicious circle of the seeding system and the defection of some potentially important players to the Republic of Ireland. The question to be answered by the Irish Football Association is not so much regarding the country’s prospects of qualification or climbing the FIFA rankings, but could someone other than Worthington do a better job?

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