Football: Hamilton puts hope in promising youth policy

Glenn Moore on the positive side to Northern Ireland's defeat
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Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign had gone awry long before Wednesday night confirmed its failure, but there was cause for optimism in the aftermath of their 3-1 defeat by Germany.

That Northern Ireland were 18 minutes from defeating the European champions was impressive enough. The way they went about the match, and the potential on show, augured even better.

Northern Ireland's task bore comparison with the World Cup encounters between Wales and the Netherlands, but their execution was very different. While Wales attempted to take on the Dutch as if they were equals, the Irish accepted they were facing superior players and concentrated on defending and counter-attacking. The players were disciplined and intelligent, stifling the Germans in midfield when they did not have the ball and breaking quickly when they did.

Most encouraging of all were the performances of the maturing Keith Gillespie and the 22-year-old Blackpool striker James Quinn. Gillespie played as an auxiliary right-back for much of the game but also had the confidence and energy to run at the Germans. Quinn formed a focal point of the attack in a manner beyond his status. He also produced a sublime pass for Michael Hughes' goal.

"He will have the scouts watching him after that," said Bryan Hamilton yesterday. "We've been bringing him on. We've had him involved, then on the bench, then given him 10 minutes here and 15 there. His touch is excellent, his movement terrific and that was a quality pass. The discipline and the shape of the side was fantastic. We played ever so well; for 70 minutes we were as good as, maybe better than them."

Bert Vogts, his German counterpart, did not quite agree but he said: "If Northern Ireland continue to build like that with the young crop of players they have coming through, they have a good chance of qualifying for the next European Championship."

The Irish are looking further ahead. Under Hamilton, the whole youth system has been overhauled with much of the work based on the successful Portuguese development system.

This was evident at half-time when four mixed teams of primary school age children played two small-sided games on the Windsor Park pitch. Both boys and girls showed unexpectedly high awareness of space and neat skills. Surely they were representative teams? Apparently not, just schools sides and local youth club teams.

"We are pleased with the progress," Hamilton said. "It is a hungry area with many good young players. We have a lot of good coaches and have tried to involve all groups, such as schools and youth clubs, in playing mini- soccer. We have more youth internationals than ever before and more get- togethers. An under-21 team is the next stage, when we solve the financial situation."

Qualifying for a major competition would ease that problem and Hamilton will be hoping for an easier group next time. That is another reason for seeking good results in the remaining World Cup games, against Albania in Zurich and in Portugal, as their Fifa ranking position (currently 71st) will influence their seeding.

More broadly, Hamilton is keeping a close eye on changes in the Premiership where the flood of foreign players is restricting the chances of young Irishmen. "The good ones will come through but the players do need the opportunity," he said.

On the plus side, there is the growing influence of young Northern Ireland managers such as Martin O'Neill, Danny Wilson, Jimmy Nicholl, Nigel Worthington and, until recently, Jimmy Quinn. "I'm delighted with that," Hamilton said. "That is very important. It is another sign that football in Northern Ireland is healthy and alive."

It seems to be prospering in Germany, too. With home matches against Portugal, Armenia and Albania to come, qualification seems certain. "They were impressively patient," Hamilton said, "and if you leave a little gap they will exploit it."

n The Wales coach, Bobby Gould, was seething yesterday after comments made on BBC Wales by one of his predecessors in the Welsh job, John Toshack.

Gould was upset at the television commentary as his side lost 6-4 to Turkey in a World Cup qualifier in Istanbul on Wednesday, particularly Toshack's criticisms of the team, its tactics and of Gould himself. Toshack, manager of the Istanbul club Besiktas, was working at the match for BBC Wales as part of their commentary team.

Gould said yesterday: "I called the BBC at 9am and I'm still waiting for a reply from their head of sport."

Toshack, apparently responding to a comment by Ian Gwyn Hughes, the BBC Wales correspondent, that the Welsh defence did not seem to know what was going on, is reported to have said: "Neither does Bobby Gould."