Steve Tongue: Sanchez faces facts in damage limitation

Try the historical approach. It throws up 97 previous meetings between the countries, of which the Ulstermen have lost 75, while conceding 323 goals and achieving a total of six (admittedly glorious) victories.

The fixture began in 1882, with a 13-0 home defeat, resuming after a long break at Old Trafford last March, when the period at the start of the second half made that inaugural meeting look quite even; England, it may be remembered, having been kept at bay by massed defence for 45 minutes, proceeded to score four times in a quarter of an hour. The last time Northern Ireland managed a goal in the series was 25 years and nine games ago; England's most recent defeat in Belfast was in 1927.

Take England out of the equation and the picture is a little brighter, though not much. Going into yesterday's Group Five game against Azerbaijan, it was a mere four years since Northern Ireland had won either a competitive match or a home game. So the one undeniable statistic that might cheer up the Six Counties is: Northern Ireland 2 Azerbaijan 0.

It is no surprise that the phrase recurring most frequently while listening to Lawrie Sanchez, the team's down-to-earth manager, is: "It's a fact of life ..." As in: "It's a fact of life that we don't have the greatest strength in depth ... It's a fact of life that if England get ahead, they're likely to beat you."

And, after bravely sending home the miscreants Jeff Whitley and Phil Mulryne last Wednesday: "It's happened, it's a fact of life."

Sanchez can quote all the stats too, including the famous one about Northern Ireland having gone 1,298 minutes, spanning 15 games, without a goal when he succeeded Sammy McIlroy nearly two years ago. The good news was that they scored in his first match, at home to Norway; the bad news was that the visitors knocked in four.

A less demanding fixture list thereafter allowed the team to improve their confidence and world ranking at last, with six games undefeated, only to "freeze" - Sanchez's word - when Poland arrived at Windsor Park last September for the start of the World Cup qualifying campaign and eased to a 3-0 victory.

"We made big progress in 2004, taking our ranking from 124 to 107," he said, "but this year was always going to be more difficult. We played England [0-4], Poland [0-1] and Germany [1-4], so the ranking slipped."

A lingering consequence of the previous goalless run was that the team tended to collapse as soon as the oppo-sition scored. "It showed in the England game and again when Germany went one up. It was a mental thing. They didn't expect to win games and a lot of the time never scored, which we do now.

"After playing England, we went to Poland and played ever so well, but went for a win at the end and they broke away and scored."

A friendly in Malta last month, which would have been lost had Birmingham's Maik Taylor not saved a late penalty, was considerably less encouraging, even with so many players unavailable that Sanchez had to change the system and use wing-backs.

"We didn't perform at all. It really looked like a pre-season game in which they didn't want to crunch into any tackles. But it was probably too early, some of my players hadn't had a competitive game at that stage. And then you see that England had a bad night in Denmark, and other big teams did as well."

At Old Trafford, a 4-5-1 formation had held out until the dam burst immediately after half-time. While promising to give greater support in attack on Wednesday to David Healy of Leeds, the country's record scorer, Sanchez is well aware of the danger of charging forward on waves of passionate support in Belfast's biggest game since England's qualifying games there in the mid-Eighties.

"One or two people were disappointed at Old Trafford that we didn't have more of a go in the first half, but it's a fact of life that if England get ahead, they're likely to beat you. So you don't want to be a couple down at half-time or you could end up losing 8-0, like Azerbaijan in Poland, when they went gung-ho."

Off the pitch, there are signs of modernisation, within the Irish Football Association as well as to the once dilapidated Windsor Park (capacity still only 13,500). Two years ago, presaging Lord Burns' report in England, the IFA's council was stripped of its power and replaced by an executive board; an Under-21 squad has been restored; and a new national stadium is under active consideration, which Sanchez believes would "invigorate everything, like the Millennium Stadium has done for Wales".

So, of course, would a sensation against England. More mundanely, the manager's ambition reflects the new realities, two decades after gracing the World Cup finals: "To finish fourth in the group would be nice."

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