Players committed to McIlroy

Sammy McIlroy will take Northern Ireland into their Euro 2004 qualifier against Ukraine today heartened by the fact that he has the full support of the dressing-room.

The former Manchester United player was given a new, two-year contract in the summer despite the province's poor record. But not only has he the backing of the Irish Football Association, he can also count on the loyalty of the players.

Danny Griffin, who won his first cap in 1996 when Bryan Hamilton was in charge, was speaking for all the players when he said: "Things have changed so much in seven years. It is great to see they [the IFA] have enough confidence in the manager to allow him to carry on. He is going with the youngsters and a few years down the line we will be a force to be reckoned with.

"The players all agree Sammy deserves a new deal," he added. "He has done so well with the boys that have been here. Every time he names a squad there are withdrawals and he's had to get on with it. He is doing a fantastic job and long may it continue."

Griffin is now over the back problem which caused him to miss the previous three qualifiers before the match with Spain. That 0-0 draw has given the team a huge lift ahead of the meeting with Ukraine and they follow that match by hosting Armenia on Wednesday.

Northern Ireland have not won in 11 matches stretching back to October 2001, when Malta were defeated, and their goal drought stands at 972 minutes. Preparations were not helped when the Ukrainians refused to turn on the lights at a training session. It meant he had to cut short the work-out by 20 minutes as darkness fell.

"I thought they were childish," McIlroy said. "They said they couldn't put the lights on. How anyone can't turn a switch on, I don't know."

McIlroy is set to start with a five-man midfield, with Andy Smith as the lone striker.

Northern Ireland: Taylor (Birmingham); Baird (Southampton), A Hughes (Newcastle), McCartney (Sunderland), Kennedy (Wigan); Gillespie (Leicester), Johnson (Birmingham), Doherty (Bristol City), Griffin (Dundee Utd), M Hughes (Crystal Palace); Smith (Glentoran).

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