Football: Quinn makes a hit

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The Independent Online
A fresh-faced fans' favourite looks likely to challenge Iain Dowie for the front-running role when Northern Ireland face Portugal in their World Cup qualifying tie next month.

West Ham's Dowie is still recovering from a broken ankle which has ruled him out of the games with Italy in Palermo and the 3-0 victory over Belgium on Tuesday night. He is expected to be fit again for the 29 March 29 match against Portugal at Windsor Park, Belfast, but he may not regain his international place because of the impression made by the Blackpool forward James Quinn.

Quinn, who has scored 13 goals this season for Blackpool, has made himself a hit with the Irish supporters, with his mobility, pace and shooting power. "He has been a real find - a player who can establish himself at international level," said Northern Ireland's manager, Bryan Hamilton.

In addition, Hamilton can call on Phil Gray, who plays in the Netherlands for Fortuna Sittard, Stoke's Gerard McMahon, Manchester United's Philip Mulryne and George O'Boyle, of St Johnstone.

But he warned: "Let's not get carried away by the 3-0 victory over Belgium. A lot of hard work lies ahead, but at least we are making progress."

Northern Ireland's hopes of qualifying for France 98 are still remote - with Germany favourites to qualify from group nine - although victory over an erratic Portuguese side would keep the campaign doing. Maximum points from trips to Ukraine and Armenia in April and May would ensure a capacity crowd for the visit of the Germans to Belfast in August.

Hamilton is expected to include Mulryne and Manchester City's 18-year- old midfielder, Jeff Whitley, in the squad against Portugal. "We must get Whitley into a competitive fixture, which means he could not be approached by any other country," Hamilton said.

Whitley, the first black player to be selected by the Irish FA at senior level, was born in Zambia and could play for them or England as he holds a British passport.