Sanchez extends deal to 2007

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As if to underline the fact that Northern Ireland visit Old Trafford today unburdened by the pressure to win at all costs, Lawrie Sanchez, the manager, yesterday agreed a two-and-a-half-year contract extension that will keep him in charge until 2007.

As if to underline the fact that Northern Ireland visit Old Trafford today unburdened by the pressure to win at all costs, Lawrie Sanchez, the manager, yesterday agreed a two-and-a-half-year contract extension that will keep him in charge until 2007.

Sanchez, though, is not a man to bask in his new-found security and concede to the overwhelming belief that his side have little hope of upsetting England.

Northern Ireland have grown in confidence and belief during Sanchez's 12-game reign, consigning to history the depressing run of 1298 goalless minutes that did for predecessor Sammy McIlroy. That progress has been rewarded by Sanchez's new deal and, as both player and manager, his pedigree in the role of underdog is impressive.

That does not mean he is underestimating England, despite his light-hearted assessment of the perceived weaknesses of Sven Goran Eriksson's side. "Beckham hasn't got a left foot and Gerrard cries at the drop of a goal," the Northern Ireland manager quipped in response to the midfielder's admission this week that he was reduced to tears as a seven-year-old by Sanchez's winning goal for Wimbledon against Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final.

However, even when reverting to a more serious assessment of today's opponents, he was quick to point out how England's strengths could work in his own side's favour. "They are world-class players with a world-class manager but this gives us a chance to compare ourselves to them," added Sanchez, who will be joined in the dug-out by Gerry Armstrong, despite the assistant manager suffering cuts and bruises in a car crash on Thursday night.

"Things aren't going to go badly. These are professional footballers playing in front of 67,000 people representing our country on the best stage in the world and against some of the best players in the world. I don't think you can say that's doing badly."

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