Could the Ulstermen, ranked third in Group 6, qualify for the 1990 World Cup and play at the global stage a third time in a row? After qualifying both for the 1982 and 1986 World Cup, there was a sense of pessimism in the N. Irish camp. The Euro 1988 qualifiers had been a backlash for Bingham’s men, who finished far behind both England and Yugoslavia, amassing a meagre 3 points. There had also been criticism of the team from a home public that now had grown used to international success. If there was any optimism in the air, it was because one believed to see a rebuilding of the squad that gradually was taking shape, and perhaps could become successful during the ’90 qualifiers.
There were of course no more Pat Jennings, Sammy McIlroy or Jimmy Nicholl in the team. But the Ulstermen could still field quality players like Norman Whiteside, Mal Donaghy and Colin Clarke. There were also exciting prospects like Michael O’Neill and Kingsley Black, who had showed a lot of promise in the English First Division. Almost the entire first team would in 1987-88 be based in the English First Division, with the exception of Jimmy Quinn (Swindon Town in the Second), Steve Penney (Brighton in the Third) and Robbie Dennison (in the Fourth!).
Was it realistic to hope for another World Cup participation? Results had not been great lately. Northern Ireland had just won one game since the 1986 World Cup, against Turkey (h). To be fair, they hadn’t played many games either, besides the qualifiers (which, again, didn’t go that well). They remained however a team that was difficult to break down, characterized by defensive discipline. They also had a few star players that could lift the team and make a difference.
Friendly: Greece 3-2 Northern Ireland
Goals: Clarke 2
Line-up: McKnight – Fleming, Donaghy, McClelland (c), Rogan – McNally (K Wilson 77), D Wilson, O’Neill (Campbell h-t), Worthington – Clarke, Quinn
Friendly: Northern Ireland 1-1 Poland
23.03.1988, Windsor Park (Belfast)
Goal: D. Wilson
Line-up: McKnight – Fleming, McDonald, Donaghy (c), Worthington – Penney (Campbell 70), Whiteside, D Wilson, O’Neill (Rogan 60) – Clarke, Quinn (K Wilson 78)
Friendly: Northern Ireland 0-0 France
Line-up: McKnight – Donaghy, McDonald, McClelland (c), Worthington – Penney, Whiteside (Quinn 41), D Wilson, Dennison (Black 48) – Clarke (K Wilson 83), O’Neill
Decent results, but unfortunately for N. Ireland, Norman Whiteside sustained an injury against France and would because of that injury not take part against Malta in May. The same match against France saw the debut of two left sided midfielders who both would become regulars in this qualification: Robbie Dennison (Wolves) and Kingsley Black (Nottingham Forest). Michael O’Neill (Newcastle United) also made his debut.
The Ulstermen’s qualification for Italia’90 kicked off against Malta already in May 1988. To play a qualifier that early is of course exceptional. Not the standard for a qualifier in the UEFA zone, but in fact usual for Northern Ireland at the time: both their campaign for the 1982 and 1986 World Cup started in spring, while most teams only would kick off in autumn. Perhaps Northern Ireland took their successful campaigns in 1982 and 1986 as a pattern to follow and requested this early fixture?