Football / European Championship: Gillespie stirs Irish memories

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THERE is a stirring in Northern Ireland whenever a young Ulsterman appears clad in the red of Manchester United. George Best was a one-off, but there are still fond memories of successors like Norman Whiteside and Sammy McIlroy. International anticipation in the province usually has its birthplace at Old Trafford.

Consequently, the likely inclusion of Keith Gillespie in tonight's line-up for the European Championship qualifying match against Portugal has set thoughts wandering to brighter times, when the Irish, in terms of world football, meant the North and not Jack Charlton's collection south of the border.

Never mind that Gillespie, 19, is third choice for the right flank spot at United behind Andrei Kanchelskis and Ryan Giggs, his arrival on the fringes of international football had escalated speculation to a point yesterday where the Northern Ireland manager, Bryan Hamilton, chose to dampen things down.

'He's young and no one's expecting him to be knocking down doors yet,' he said. 'I don't want to talk too much about him because you can put too much pressure on him. He's talented and got explosive pace, but has a long way to go.'

Hamilton would not announce his team for what will be his second competitive match since his appointment as Billy Bingham's successor, but he did suggest his thoughts were centring on the flanks. 'Most of the successful teams at the moment employ two wingers,' he said. 'Defences are so well organised you need players who can get round the back of them.' Logic, therefore, dictates Gillespie and Strasbourg's Michael Hughes, 23, will play.

If the Irish have youth on their side, however, their opponents are overflowing with it. The Portuguese are without their best forward, Paulo Futre, who is injured, and another three senior players are missing, but the riches implied by their reaching the final of the European Under-21 Championship last season are now being mined by their manager, Antonio Olivera.

'People who've seen a lot of them tell me Portugal are likely to be one of the great powers in football over the next few years,' Hamilton said.

The Scots, who shipped five goals against them last year, will need no persuading.

'But Northern Ireland are always difficult to beat at Windsor Park,' Hamilton continued. 'The fact we're a young team will help, they think they can take on the world.' He will hope they are not rapidly dissillusioned.

NORTHERN IRELAND (probable): Fettis (Hull); Fleming (Barnsley), McDonald (QPR), Taggart (Barnsley), Worthington (Leeds), Gillespie (Manchester United), Magilton (Southampton), Hill (Leicester), Hughes (Strasbourg), O'Boyle (St Johnson), Quinn (Reading).

PORTUGAL (probable): Baia (Porto), Pinto (Porto), Madeira (Benfica), Helder (Benfica), Paulihno Santos (Porto), Tavares (Benfica), Sousa (Juventus), Paneira (Benfica), Figo (Sporting Lisbon), Costa (Fiorentina) Sa Pinto (Sporting Lisbon).