McIlroy's goalless side take heart from Armstrong

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The Independent Football

Chill out. Seek accuracy, not power. And be patient. That is the advice today to Northern Ireland's goal-shy international side when they face Greece from Gerry Armstrong, the man who scored the most famous goal in their history.

Sammy McIlroy's team last found the net on 13 February 2002 when Steve Lomas scored in the first half of a 4-1 friendly defeat by Poland. Since then they have endured 1,152 minutes without a goal, a run that includes the whole of their last 12 matches. When they failed to score against Armenia in their last Euro 2004 qualifier, at home last month, they set a record for the longest drought in European international history. Liechtenstein had been the previous record holders, having failed to score in 11 games between September 2000 and March 2002.

During the 20-month drought, McIlroy has used 36 players hailing from seven divisions in four countries. To no avail. As our table shows, they include nine strikers who, between them, have scored 178 goals for their respective clubs since Northern Ireland last scored. McIlroy has also used 13 midfielders, with 66 goals between them for their clubs in that period. Even McIlroy's dozen defenders have managed 11 goals in club football since February last year. But despite the fact that the 36 players have scored 255 club goals, a single goal for their country has proved elusive. Ability to score, per se, is not the problem. Scoring on the biggest stages is.

"I've spoken to Sammy and he's happy that the team are making chances," said Armstrong, whose goal against Spain in the 1982 World Cup ensured his sporting immortality. "But they're getting desperate now and missing them. Once they score, the goals will come. But they need to chill out, make their chances count, concentrate on getting the ball in the goal instead of ripping the net out.

"To be fair," he adds, "they've had some very creditable draws during this run against the likes of Spain and Ukraine. But you also need to understand that some of these players are making a big step up when they play for their country."

The best cases in point are the likes of Andy Smith and Gary Hamilton, who play for Glentoran and Portadown, respectively. Prolific at what is effectively non-league level at home, they have yet to score for their country. Smith has come closest in four appearances (and 297 minutes) since February last year, with near misses against Spain, Ukraine and Armenia. Hamilton has had just one 14-minute appearance.

If an in-form player is going to end the drought, then maybe the Hull winger, Stuart Elliott, or the Bournemouth striker, Wayne Feeney, will make a name for himself today in Athens. They both scored last weekend for their clubs. Or maybe the Southampton full-back Chris Baird, currently on loan at Walsall, could be the history-maker.

"Or Keith Gillespie, on his 50th cap," Armstrong said. "He doesn't get many so now would a pretty good time. Or a centre-half up for a corner. Or anyone, in fact. It doesn't matter who, as long as someone gets one."