Sanchez plays the glory card as his game of patience unfolds

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The Independent Online

Lawrie Sanchez will be rewarded with a new contract as manager of Northern Ireland early this week and will then attempt to lead his team, ranked 111th in the world, to what he believes could be a victory unparalleled in the history of international football.

Lawrie Sanchez will be rewarded with a new contract as manager of Northern Ireland early this week and will then attempt to lead his team, ranked 111th in the world, to what he believes could be a victory unparalleled in the history of international football.

He says of Saturday's game at Old Trafford: "England have fantastic players but we have the chance of great glory. It's 111th against seventh and I think you'd struggle to find a team beaten at home by a team 104 places below them in any World Cup qualifier. Anything but a win for England and all the Northern Ireland players could walk out with great credit."

It is a shrewd argument, simultaneously offering those players the chance of national heroism, while removing all pressure from them. But Sanchez, his own name already inscribed in the history books for that twisting headed goal to win the 1988 FA Cup final for Wimbledon against the overwhelming favourites, Liverpool, is a shrewd man; bright enough, for instance, to realise that the only way was up for a team who had played 13 matches without scoring a goal when he took over in January last year. The little striker David Healy duly obliged in Sanchez's first match, against Norway, and rarely has a 4-1 home defeat been celebrated with such a sense of relief.

A first win after just as long soon followed, and by losing only two of 12 matches until Canada won a low-key friendly last month, the eloquent 45-year-old had pulled Northern Ireland out of the trough into which they had sunk.

With a mother born in Belfast, he knows his history and his statistics, reeled off to illustrate how far the country's football has fallen, but also what realistic hope there is for the future: "World Cup quarter-final in 1958... 40th in the world in 1994... and last December we were 124th. There's probably not been a nation that's fallen so far.

"There's loads of reasons, like the break-up of Eastern Europe, so there's 52 instead of 32 countries in qualifying, and it's harder to win games in Europe. I'm sure if Northern Ireland were in a South American group, we could qualify for a World Cup occasionally. We've a small population of one-and-a-half million, one of the smallest nations in Europe. There's been a problem of sectar-ianism, which is being eliminated. We've got failing infrastructure, an erosion of playing football in the streets.

"But we're hopefully going to get a new national stadium; the Under-17s got to the élite group of the Uefa championships last summer; the Under-21s have been revitalised, even though they cost the same [£300,000] to run as the senior team. We'll never get back to being eighth in the world, probably not the top 30. We can hopefully within my time get well into the top 100, but I think you have to be 60th to have a realistic chance of qualifying for the World Cup. Bridging that gap is a hard ask."

And what of the gap on Saturday, when Manchester United's goalkeeper, Roy Carroll, will expect to stand between the posts as one of perhaps three Premiership players in the team?

"It's obviously a great game for Northern Ireland fans, players and management," Sanchez said, before deftly inserting a little psychological dig: "As current holders of the Home International Championship [last contested in 1984, when they won on goal difference] we have something to prove.

"We're thinking of bringing the trophy over from the Irish Football Association headquarters, where it's housed. The people of Northern Ireland are really looking forward to it. We're bringing six-and- a-half thousand fans and could have brought 10 to 12 thousand if the tickets were available."

After three draws and a defeat in qualifying matches so far, he is trying hard to persuade those followers of Linfield and Lisburn Distillery, Crusaders and Cliftonville (and, of course, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal) that the game in Poland on Wednesday week is more important in the wider context of qualification from the group, and that "the England game is irrelevant in the overall scheme of things".

Convincing the Six Counties of that sounds, somehow, like a losing battle.

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