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From heroes to zeroes

Despite its tiny population and troubled history, Northern Ireland has a habit of carving a place for itself in football's history books.

The Irish Football Association (IFA) is the fourth oldest footballing authority on the planet and in 1891 was instrumental in the introduction of penalties and corner-kicks into the game.

In June 1982, a 17-year-old Manchester United player by the name of Norman Whiteside replaced Pele as the youngest person to play in a World Cup by appearing for the Irish against Yugoslavia - a record that stood untouched for two decades.

In the same World Cup, the underdogs from 'Norn Iron' wrote the greatest chapter in their history by holding-out with 10 men to beat World Cup hosts and favourites Spain 1-0.

Throw names like George Best, Danny Blanchflower, Pat Jennings and Martin O'Neill into the mix, and you are left wondering how a province of only 1.6m people has had such a profound impact upon the game.

Yet it is history of a very different nature that the current crop of Northern Ireland players are creating. For it is now 20 months, or 1,152mins of football, since the boys in green last scored a goal; and over 2 years since they registered a victory.

As a result of this dire run, the team has slipped to 111th in the latest FIFA World rankings - behind such nations as Burkina Faso, Cuba and the Sudan. The country that brought the world one of the greatest ever footballers (George Best) are now officially the worst team in Europe.

And there are a number of inter-linked reasons why Northern Ireland has suffered such a heavy fall from grace since their last major tournament appearance at Mexico '86.

At a basic level, their inability to score is down to the comparatively poor quality of their forwards, and a slice of bad luck. The attacking threat consists solely of players from Preston, Hearts, Hull City, and 2 Irish League sides (Portadown and Glentoran).

Northern Ireland's conveyor-belt of talent has slowed over a number of years and the decline has its roots in a number of developments within the Irish game over the last 15 years.

As with most things in Northern Irish society, politics and religion have had a role to play. At a club level, most teams in the province are strongly associated with either the Catholic or the Protestant communities.

But despite this sectarian split, and despite Northern Ireland playing their home games at Windsor Park - located in a protestant area, and home of the league team with the strongest protestant identity in the province - the mainly protestant-associated Northern Ireland team managed to draw fans from both communities right-up to the late 1980's.

At this point, however, two unrelated developments changed the structure of their fan-base forever, along with the potential for future success.

World Cup 1982: Big Norm, barely 17, takes on Yugoslavia.
World Cup 1982: Big Norm, barely 17, takes on Yugoslavia.

As the euphoria of two consecutive World Cup appearances in the 1980's resided, crowds at Northern Ireland games began to slowly decline. This enabled a sectarian hardcore of fans to come to the fore both numerically and vocally.

Anti-Catholic chanting became common place in the 1990's and supporting Northern Ireland increasingly became an excuse for members of one religion to celebrate their identity at the expense of the other.

Northern Ireland players who were on the books of catholic-associated Glasgow Celtic came in for particular attention. Defender Anton Rogan was frequently booed by his own supporters in the early 1990's.

The tragic climax of this victimisation came in August 2002 when Northern Ireland's best player, Neil Lennon, was forced to pull-out of a friendly international because of death-threats made to his family by a Loyalist/protestant terrorist group.

Lennon had received such threats before, as a result of being both a Northern Ireland and a Celtic player, but this was the last straw. Shortly after the incident he announced his retirement from International football.

Meanwhile, south of the border the fortunes of the Republic of Ireland team took-off in the 1990's, so much so that three World Cups and one European Championship appearance later, they are ranked fourteenth in the world.

Fans from the Catholic community, who found Windsor Park too hostile, now had their own successful team to identify with. This switch of allegiance lead to an additional narrowing of Northern Ireland's fan base - fuelling the conditions for sectarian problems.

As a result, 40% of the Northern Irish population now actively identify with the Republic of Ireland team, with some hostile towards their own national side, and this split-allegiance has reduced the amount of players available for selection.

A trickle of Northern Ireland-born Catholic youngsters have begun playing for the Republic at junior levels - leading to a brief bust-up between the two associations amidst allegations from the IFA of player-poaching - further diminishing Northern Ireland's limited pool of resources.

And it was not just the national team that is losing out - football as a whole is beginning to suffer in the province. With a sectarian atmosphere at both domestic and international level, families from both communities in the province started turning their back on the game altogether.

By the mid-1990's Sports Council statistics showed that more kids in Northern Ireland were playing hockey and rugby than football. The rise in prominence of a number of Ulster teams within the sport of Gaelic Football in the 1990's provided a further sporting alternative, as did the success of the Ulster provincial rugby team in European and Celtic League competitions.

George Best: United legend.
George Best: United legend.

In 1999 the IFA finally admitted there was a serious problem with sectarianism in football - possibly spurred by dwindling revenues, dire results on the pitch and an exodus of young talent to the Republic - and decided to act.

They established a community relations strategy to tackle the malaise within the game, and appointed a full-time Community Relations Officer to help deliver it. They also enlisted the support of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, with Minister for Sport Michael McGimpsey launching a comprehensive review of the state of the game in the province.

To the IFA's credit, their community relations initiative has had some degree of success. Anti-catholic chanting has reduced at international matches, and a family oriented approach has started to alter the demographics of the fan-base.

This new approach has been critical in enabling the IFA to access funding from government and FIFA to address youth development across the province, which is clearly the key to creating a brighter future on the pitch.

From one full-time Football Development Officer in 1995, the IFA now employs nine full-time and 16 part-time officers, with hundreds of qualified coaches under their direction.

It is both hoped and expected that the new development structure will increase the quality of youth coming into and through the game, whilst the willingness to tackle overt sectarianism should also make the sport more appealing for players and supporters alike.

But with approx 50% of the province's youth now supporting another international team, one can't help but think that opportunity may have passed Northern Ireland by.

The unwelcome record of being Europe's worst team is likely to change, but the likelihood of emulating the type of history created by the great team of the 1980s looks to be an increasingly distant hope. Northern Ireland may never again be the force they once were.