Worthington still smiling in the face of adversity

Relegation may be looming but Norwich City know they have a manager with the right credentials for long-term success. Sam Wallace spoke to him
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His Norwich City team face Manchester United today, a thankless task when you consider their perilous Premiership position, but those among Nigel Worthington's players who can remember the 1991 League Cup final can draw the faintest cause for optimism. In a time before Sir Alex Ferguson even had a Premiership title, let alone a knighthood, the Sheffield Wednesday team Worthington travelled with to face United at Wembley were not just 17 places behind their opponents, but a whole division below.

His Norwich City team face Manchester United today, a thankless task when you consider their perilous Premiership position, but those among Nigel Worthington's players who can remember the 1991 League Cup final can draw the faintest cause for optimism. In a time before Sir Alex Ferguson even had a Premiership title, let alone a knighthood, the Sheffield Wednesday team Worthington travelled with to face United at Wembley were not just 17 places behind their opponents, but a whole division below.

Worthington was a left-back of impeccable reputation in Wednesday's team and it was his ball that made the goal for John Sheridan which won the game for a club scrapping for promotion in the original Second Division, against a United team that went on to dominate the 1990s. Now, facing United as the underdog once again, Worthington, 43, is one of British football's most highly-rated managers and his preparation for this evening's game is likely to be a little different to that final 14 years ago.

In charge of Wednesday in May 1991, only months before his controversial move to Aston Villa, was Ron Atkinson and his method of preparation for a cup final against his former club was a flourish of the ancient school of football management, before the 1990s ushered in the modern Premiership. On the Wednesday team bus to Wembley that day Atkinson took a man hired especially to relax the players, an individual who, in terms of English popular culture, was as wedded to the past as the now demolished twin towers of the old stadium.

"Stan Boardman was on the bus to Wembley - Ron had asked him along and you could see why," Worthington says. "He was at the front on the microphone all the way telling jokes and doing his thing. Right up until the moment we got into the stadium and it made such a big difference. It took the edge off the whole occasion. The fact that it was a final and that it was Wembley. That was Ron's way. It was completely different but for us players it really worked. As a team we were relaxed and we were ready to go to face Manchester United."

Professional football might be one of the few places in English society that still provides work for comedians of Boardman's tradition, but they do not tend to get much employment these days doing pre-match cup final team-talks. The game has moved on and no-one knows that better now than Worthington. Over the past four years he has quietly established himself at Norwich, where he took over after Bryan Hamilton's resignation in January 2001 and, following two years at Blackpool and a stint with the England Under-21s, he is regarded as having served an impressive apprenticeship.

Not that this season has been especially easy on a man who forced Norwich up from the brink of destitution to winners of the Championship last season and now finds himself six points adrift at the bottom of the Premiership. Worthington renews acquaintances with Ferguson today knowing that relegation is all but a certainty for a club that has refused to gamble its financial future on staying in the Premiership, but he is adamant that a season at the bottom of the table has not injured his confidence.

"You talk about stress and pressure, well those are not the kind of words that I would choose," Worthington says. "I prefer to see it as a challenge. If we go back down then it's another 42 matches to come back and this is a club that has been built to last, from the way we treat our young players to the money we have spent on transfers. We know that winning promotion to the Premiership is about grinding out results. If you ask Mick McCarthy, Paul Jewell and Joe Royle they will tell you the same."

Like those three managers, Worthington has become an expert in taking responsibility for the entire structure of a football club, rather than being given the luxury of deciding how to spend millions in the transfer market or booking the comedian for the team bus. In the space of one day this week he spoke to the local press, took first team training, had lunch with the Norwich director Delia Smith in the canteen and was still working right up to his evening meeting with the club board. That is modern football management and it scarcely allows for a moment's respite.

"I love my job and I want to do well at it but I have always tried to keep it in perspective," Worthington says. "I was really struck by what Jose Mourinho said at Christmas, when he said that at that time of year it was being with your family that was the most important thing. Being a manager takes a lot of your time but it should never be allowed to take over and I certainly haven't let it do that this season."

Worthington has been uncomplaining through a series of injuries to players such as David Bentley, Youssef Safri and Matias Svensson, and most of all he has tried to stay true to the principles of attacking football that won Norwich 94 points in the Championship last season.

"This club likes the 4-4-2 formation and its supporters expect the game to be played a certain way," Worthington says, and he has not abandoned that in pursuit of the mind-numbing restrictions of a five-man midfield.

There have been some promising signs too for the future of Norwich, not least Jason Shackell, the 20-year-old centre-half who did what Bayern Munich could not manage this week when he marked Didier Drogba into obscurity during the visit of Chelsea to Carrow Road in March.

"Jason has been a shining beacon for us this season," says Worthington, who has also developed Ryan Jarvis and Danny Crow from an academy that has a good track record of producing players when you consider that a large part of its designated catchment area is in the North Sea.

Worthington has drawn criticism for some of his summer signings, like Safri who, at £750,000, has had two serious injuries already this season, and the veteran Danish international Thomas Helveg, although both could start today. The Norwich manager is willing to admit that both of them have struggled to settle but he can at least point to the success of the £3m January acquisition Dean Ashton, who announced himself with a superb goal against Manchester City in February.

"You have to try to get more right than you get wrong and I think we have done that," Worthington says.

It is interesting to note that Worthington, a mainstay of Northern Ireland's 1986 World Cup team and the winner of 66 international caps, regards his mentor to be Howard Wilkinson, the manager who brought him from Notts County to Sheffield Wednesday in 1984. The former England caretaker manager's approach may now seem outmoded but he has left certain principles by which Worthington swears.

"Howard was a great influence on me as a player and in this profession too," he says. "He gave me experience coaching the England U-21s and the importance he placed in discipline and good organisation was a very good grounding for me."

A child of Ballymena who made the journey to England, and the giant leap into professional football, at the age of 19, there is iron in Worthington too and he was not afraid to take on one of his younger charges earlier in the season. On-loan from Arsenal, Bentley, a talented 20-year-old striker who has never been uncertain about his own gifts, kicked a ball away during a session in imitation of Peter Kay's John Smiths television commercial and found himself disciplined by his manager.

"We were in a circle passing the ball around and in a moment of jest David picked it up and kicked it away," Worthington says. "So I said, 'Right then, it's a big lap of the training ground.' He came back and that was it. It got out and was in the press and after that there was a bit of fuss about it. I think his head went down a little bit over the next few weeks. But I spoke to Arsenal and they said 'give him a kick up the backside and he'll be all right'. I think he is the better for it."

There was no suggestion that Bentley, who should return to face United today after 10 weeks out with a knee injury, was frozen out of the team because of the incident, although Worthington has a clear code of conduct for his players.

"There is a line that the players cannot cross because at a football club you cannot afford to have chaos," he says, but he has also fostered a collective spirit at Norwich. Nowhere is that more obvious than the canteen at their training ground in Colney, where academy players tuck into platefuls of pasta just one table away from the multi-millionaire cook who helped draw up the menu.

Worthington, who, like Ferguson, is on a one-year rolling contract, has a good relationship with the Norwich board and unusually for a manager still stays in touch with his former chairman, Karl Oyston at Blackpool, who remains a family friend. At 43 he has reached the age where many emergent young managers - Mourinho is 42, Steve McClaren 43 - are finally given their chance with a club who have greater resources.

"I am very ambitious," Worthington says. "I want to keep making the step up the ladder all the time although at the moment I am at a very good club who have grown steadily over the last four and a half years and I am very proud of my part in that. I have had a taste of the Premiership and I know I can I can deal with it and handle what it throws at a manager. I have the self-belief and I would love to manage there on a regular basis."

The logjam of foreign coaches at the top of English football has remained a daunting obstacle for any aspiring British manager.

"No disrespect to the foreign people coming in but I think it is a bit of fashionable thing at the moment," Worthington says. "It has worked for some clubs and not for others but I think there are enough good young managers to have a position within the top clubs. I believe very strongly that British managers should at least be given an opportunity."

Like his Wednesday team-mate Gary Megson, Worthington has been forced to prove himself at a club that he diplomatically describes as "prudent", although his circumstances are very different to those of his friend, who was fired by West Bromwich Albion this season. Despite the near-inevitability of relegation, the club hierarchy are desperate to keep the manager they see as the best man to take them back up.

Which will mean that, should Megson defy the odds and keep Nottingham Forest in the Championship, these two protégés of Wilkinson will start the struggle again for promotion to the Premiership next season. Both of them played under Atkinson in Wednesday's 1990-91 promotion season and were in the squad that came down for their hotel breakfast on the morning of one game to discover their manager opening up bottles of his trademark pink champagne.

"The table was covered with bottles of pink champagne and Ron said, 'Right you lot, I want them finished'," Worthington says. "Now, some players had a few sips and some had a lot more but it was a way of taking the whole edge off the occasion. It was a different kind of approach that must sound unusual now, but it worked well for us."

They also pride themselves on high culinary standards at Norwich, but there will not be any Dutch courage required today. There might be a few clubs above them panicking at the prospect of relegation but for Norwich City, and their impressive manager, it has become a hazard to be treated with calm and dignity.