Football: Worthington's role in Blackpool rock

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The Independent Online
Nigel Worthington was

a dependable left-back, the sort whose contribution is noticed only when he is not there. Now, he is the manager of Blackpool, and, as Guy Hodgson learned, he is aiming to use those qualities and the knowledge he has picked up from his mentor, Howard Wilkinson, to bring stability to a famous club.

There was an adamant statement in Wrexham's programme for their recent Second Division match against Blackpool. "Having been in the managerial chair for a few weeks now," Nigel Worthington wrote, "I can tell you it is even less likely I'll be tempted to begin playing myself."

When reminded of this Worthington smiled, and said: "Which just goes to prove what a liar I am." He turned emergency player-manager that night and figured in Blackpool's 4-3 success after his side had been trailing 3-0 on the hour.

Such wins can be the making of a career although given that his managerial CV already includes Coca-Cola Cup victories over Manchester City and Coventry City in his short spell at Bloomfield Road, perhaps he needed it less than most new incumbents. It has been a satisfactory start to the job and possibly a good way to end playing, too.

In theory, Worthington will not figure for the club again and his time in the Northern Ireland side is almost certainly over. In theory. As he puts it: "If a plague struck the country's left-backs and 17 of the 18 players in the squad were injured I might get a game."

In practice, the national manager, Bryan Hamilton, would call upon his services long before then. Indeed, if the recent game against Albania in Switzerland had carried a chance of World Cup qualification you suspect the telephone lines into Blackpool would have been red hot with urgings for Worthington to keep himself fit.

It was only in February that he won the last of his 66 caps and little more than a month since he told Hamilton that he no longer felt he should be considered. "It's not fair for the youngster waiting to break through or for the older player who has been patient if I hang around," he said.

The first of those caps (against Wales in 1984) brought Worthington an international medal as Northern Ireland won the last Home International Championship with a 1-1 draw in Swansea although he did go to the World Cup finals in Mexico two years later. Worthington has since played against Italy, Germany, Portugal and Uruguay among others.

"To win 66 caps is something I'm very proud of," he said. "I've been all over the world, played some great teams. I can remember playing against Spain in the World Cup finals with a temperature of 114 degrees at midday. Freak conditions, dreadful to play in, but just to be there was a great experience. It's not something you can do justice with a video or a diary. It lives in the memory. Different challenges, different players, it's a marker for yourself. You find out how good you really are. It's always a wrench to stop turning out for your country. It wasn't an easy decision to stop."

He was the old head around which Hamilton introduced youngsters in a team whose potential will probably not be fulfilled until the next World Cup campaign. Worthington was the steadying influence, but then he was even as a youngster.

A full-back built on Denis Irwin lines - quiet, dependable, barely noticeable until he is not there - he followed Howard Wilkinson from Notts County to Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds and, not surprisingly, the Football Association's technical director is the man he regards as his biggest influence.

He has brought Wilkinson's former assistant at Elland Road, Mick Hennegan, to Blackpool and has consulted his former mentor since taking the job. "I have a lot of respect for Howard Wilkinson and I hope I've learned a lot off him," he said. "I've always said his three strengths are professionalism, dedication and organisation. Whichever club he went to he left it in a healthier shape than how he found it."

Which is his aim for Blackpool, often nearly men in the Second Division. "I'd gone to Stoke and intended seeing out my contract, when the job came up here and I thought I'd have a stab at it. Coaching or managing was something I always fancied. I was never a player who just enjoyed going training, and didn't think any more of it.

"There is potential here. Being a seaside resort there are a lot of visitors, which isn't always ideal for a football club, but hopefully I can make a mark. There's been a few managers through here in recent years but I'd like to bring a bit of stability."

A new ground is in the planning stage and supporters have been heartened not only by the Coca-Cola Cup wins but also by a steady start to the League campaign. The impression is of a club trying hard to shake off recent upheavals.

"The results against Manchester City were a good and bad thing," Worthington said. "A couple of games round those matches we were very poor. They had taken a lot out of us mentally and physically. But the players showed what they are capable of in those matches. It's up to them and the management to maintain that standard."