The Northern light dimmed

Click to follow

For the last three days, Sammy McIlroy has been tearing out the few remaining hairs on his head. No sooner had his Northern Ireland team come within two minutes of recording an impressive 1-1 draw with the world's fifth best country than five of his players were being detained by the Czech police. Some way to celebrate what he describes as "the first really good performance since I took over".

The arrests of Michael Hughes, David Healy, Tommy Wright, Peter Kennedy and Glenn Ferguson, and their subsequent releases without charge, soured what had been a frustrating, yet encouraging, 3-1 reverse against Patrick Berger's Czech Republic.

All four players and the goalkeeping coach have protested their innocence following that incident in a Prague nightclub. "None of us were the aggressors," said Wimbledon's Hughes, the captain, "and we did everything possible to avoid conflict. The Czech police have completely exonerated us of all blame and we now want to put the incident behind us. We all want to play for our country again."

There are those who would argue that they should be banned, but McIlroy may have little choice in the matter. He was again without 10 players because of suspension and injury on Wednesday, when his team lost their sixth game in succession. According to the Irish Football Association general secretary, David Bowen, the final decision as to whether the five should be reintegrated into the squad will rest with McIlroy. "We'll ask Sammy," he said. "He will speak to the boys and in turn we will talk to him. I would say, though, given that there are no charges against the players, it would be very hard to punish them."

McIlroy is distraught, because there were several positives from the game. The Fulham goalkeeper, Maik Taylor, was the man of the match, but the young Norwich midfielder Philip Mulryne also acquitted himself well. "The way I feel is hard to describe," McIlroy said. "I keep thinking about what might have been. We were so close to pulling off a miracle result. I have nothing but praise for my boys."

The respect seems mutual, and it is understood the IFA will offer McIlroy a new two-year deal to continue the work he has undertaken. Despite the six-match losing run and the fact that Northern Ireland cannot qualify for the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea, the powers that be feel McIlroy has made progress during his 18 months in charge.

The IFA plan to sit down with him in August, and hope to have a new contract agreed before the resumption of the qualifiers in September. Pres-ident Jim Boyce said: "I think Sammy should be rewarded with a new contract. Like all other Northern Ireland fans I have been disappointed with our results, but I'm very hopeful for the future. Sammy has introduced virtually an entire squad, many of whom have great talent and potential."

Enough talent and potential to qualify for the 2004 European Championships in Portugal?