Football: McMenemy draws on his reserves

Steve Tongue meets the man at the heart of an Irish transformation
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The Independent Online
IT HAS always been a favourite dictum of Lawrie McMenemy's that the ideal football team consists of seven road- sweepers and four violinists. Looking down the list of players available to him after taking over as manager of Northern Ireland last February, he must have wondered about the feasibility of keeping Windsor Park clean, let alone raising a string quartet.

"Before we played Finland last month, I said we were the underdogs and I saw the Finnish press lads smile, so I asked how many of their team were substitutes for their clubs' reserves, like some of mine," McMenemy recalled. "I had to bring three players off in that game who were totally exhausted, because they just hadn't been playing enough for their clubs. Jack Charlton, who's an old friend, was one of the first to phone me when I took the job, and he pointed out that there were twice as many people in the Republic of Ireland as in the north. He said it was going to be twice as hard.

"So we've gone down the same path as the Republic, bringing in people like Maik Taylor, the goalkeeper, who was born in Germany and trying to get others like Dele Adebola of Birmingham. Iain Dowie's been a great servant and reached his 50 caps, but there's a real shortage of strikers."

Last week, while Charlton's successor Mick McCarthy wrangled with Premiership clubs about securing the services of their players five days before his match in Yugoslavia, McMenemy was resigned to the fact that three of his squad for Wednesday's Euro 2000 qualifier at home to Moldova would be involved in club matches this afternoon. "I've got two playing in FA Cup ties, for Luton and Fulham, and one playing for Dundee United. I won't even see them until Monday, two days before our game."

The Moldova match is every bit as important as the Republic's too; arguably more so, as defeat would have a far worse effect on both morale and qualification prospects. Inheriting a team that had won one qualifying match out of 10 in the World Cup, McMenemy is proud to have scratched out three successive home victories, two in friendlies and then against Finland. The attendances and the enthusiasm in Belfast have increased each time, like the spirit of the squad. Even a 3-0 defeat in Turkey to start the Euro 2000 campaign in September looks less serious since Germany, the group favourites, travelled there and lost 1-0.

"This is a significant fixture," McMenemy said. "It's the last competitive game before March, when we play at home to Germany. To go into Christmas with six points would be a huge boost to everyone, give them all something to talk about. The domestic game in Northern Ireland has already had a lift. I've been over there on three Saturdays, not just as a flag-waving exercise, but to keep an eye on some of the young players.

At 62, McMenemy's own enthusiasm is undiminished, despite sour endings to his last two jobs, as Graham Taylor's assistant with England and then as director of football at Southampton, where he fell out with the new regime and followed Graeme Souness out of the door. After 20 years of the day-to-day grind at Doncaster, Grimsby, Southampton and Sunderland, the different rhythms of international football suit him well; and, less tarnished or scarred than Taylor by the England experience, he was thrilled to return, especially with his ancestors' country.

"International football is better for an older person," he says. "I'm sure I wasn't the first choice, but the fact that the players are mainly in England and Scotland helped the Irish FA make a decision that was a revolutionary one for them."

Reluctant to admit that the Taylor regime lacked international experience, he has nevertheless surrounded himself with assistants like Joe Jordan and Pat Jennings, who can put enough caps on the table to make it creak. "At the first get-together, we got everyone in and I told them we'd got the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Irishman and we'd all been round the block a few times. I said there were five World Cups between those two and I'd managed in every division, and we weren't in it for the money. Joe played for me at Southampton and I knew him as a professional and as a person, and Pat - well, Pat just has to walk out on to the pitch to lift the crowd.

"It's not easy. Unlike golf, there's no handicapping, otherwise we'd get a goal start. But it makes us more of a team."

Violins and brooms at the ready, then? "That's right. I love Alan Ball's story of how Sir Alf [Ramsey ] once asked him, did he have a dog that he used to throw a ball to, and get him to bring it back to him? Bally said he did, so Alf said, 'I want you and Nobby Stiles to chase the ball like that dog and get it back to Bobby Charlton'. Bob was the lead violinist, you see. But you need fetchers and carriers too."