Such is the mis-match at Windsor Park tonight. Sven Goran Eriksson may inwardly moan, when he arrives at Highbury, Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge on a match-day, at the number of ineligible foreign players on view, but his problem is still more who to leave out than who to select. As his counterpart, Lawrie Sanchez, said last night: "It doesn't matter who plays for England, they still have Premiership players doubling up in every position."
In four years in the post Eriksson has never seen a Football League match (and whatever Andrew Johnson was told he is not likely to start now). Sanchez spends most of his working life at the various outposts of the Championship and lower leagues. With a population base of 1.5m Northern Irish players have always been thin on the ground in England's top flight. The influx of overseas players has pushed them further out of sight.
Thus if Nick Barmby, Gavin McCann, Chris Powell, or any of the other Englishmen selected by Eriksson for his first match in February 2001, but long since discarded, hailed from Northern Ireland it is reasonable to assume they would still be playing international football.
Instead, Barmby's Hull City team-mate, Stuart Elliott, is likely to play as will Southampton reserve Chris Baird and Plymouth's Tony Capaldi. And, unless Sanchez fields a more conservative formation than he did against Azerbaijan on Saturday, so will Quinn. He once cost £500,000 but his last three moves have been on free transfers. Five of England's team have cost more than £20m.
It could end in a 6-0 drubbing, as in Portugal's weekend thrashing of Luxembourg. But it is more likely to resemble the Netherlands' narrow 1-0 win in Armenia on Saturday or, England's scrappy win over Wales in Cardiff that day.
One reason is most of the England players will not relish the conditions. Having long been destined for great things most have only ever played on the big stages, not the backwaters of repertory. Beckham played for Preston in the lower divisions, as did Ferdinand for Bournemouth and Frank Lampard for Swansea, but they were on loan, sent out by Alex Ferguson and Harry Redknapp to toughen them up. None of Eriksson's team has ever earned a living with a club outside the Premiership. With the exception of Aaron Hughes and Steven Davis, all of Sanchez's squad have. Thus the cramped and rustic facilities at Linfield Park will not discomfort them as they may England's élite players.
For most of England's players the nearest they have come to real work was cleaning the first team's boots and scrubbing the dressing room, and the more recent academy graduates will not even have done that. Sanchez's squad includes Steve Jones, who helped build Old Trafford while working in construction; Elliott, who spent six years cleaning windows while playing for Glentoran; and Ivan Sproule, a former civil engineer.
For these players tonight is the opportunity of their lives. And in Sanchez they have a manager who knows all about giant-killers seizing the moment. As a manager Sanchez led Wycombe Wanderers to the FA Cup semi-finals but he is best known for heading the goal by which Wimbledon defeated Liverpool to win the 1988 FA Cup.
"The players have a chance to write their names into Northern Ireland football folklore," he said. "These chances don't come along often in a career. This is a great opportunity to make history. My career hangs on one such incident.
"I've said to the players that to achieve what they want to achieve against England they have to believe they can do it. The sides I played in and managed that caused upsets all believed they could do it. There are doubters even now but it is my job between now and kick-off to convince them that they can achieve it."
Sanchez, despite his meagre resources, had the bottle to send Jeff Whitley and Phil Mulryne, two experienced players, home last week after they went on a bender. He was rewarded with his team's first competitive win in four years. England would be wise not to underestimate their opponents. After all, as Posh 'n' Becks will know, Primark is more fashionable than Armani right now.
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- Berkshire, England
- Chelsea F.c.
- Lawrie Sanchez
- Stamford Bridge
- Sven-goran Eriksson