Benched at his club, World Cup is focus for NIreland keeper
GENEVA (AP) — When you have the World Cup, who needs the English second division?
Northern Ireland goalkeeper Michael McGovern will represent his country’s national soccer team on Thursday in a playoff game against Switzerland in Belfast — his fifth World Cup qualifying game this season.
That is five more league games than he has played this season for Norwich, his team in England.
The only competitive club action McGovern had was a game in August in England’s second-string cup competition. It was against a third-tier team.
That preparation doesn’t seem ideal to help Northern Ireland return to the World Cup for the first time since going to Mexico in 1986, weeks before McGovern’s second birthday.
Yet McGovern’s seven shutouts in 10 qualifying group games — conceding only in two losses to Germany, and an own-goal in the last match against Norway — is among the world’s best records on the road to Russia.
He is in the good company of goalkeepers for a World Cup-bound country who are stuck on the bench in English leagues. Argentina’s Sergio Romero cannot dislodge David de Gea at Manchester United. David Ospina is first choice for Colombia but behind Petr Cech at Arsenal.
Still, goalkeepers are different, and newly appointed FIFA coaching specialist Pascal Zuberbuehler said McGovern’s situation is not a problem.
“He is disciplined, he is professional. At the moment, he handles it fantastically,” Zuberbuehler, who kept goal for Switzerland 51 times, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
The key to McGovern having consistent top-level success is setting high standards in training.
“You need to train hard for yourself, even if you have Cech or De Gea next to you,” Zuberbuehler said. “And the head coach gives him the confidence that he is No. 1.”
Northern Ireland coach Michael O’Neill built trust in McGovern on the team’s run to the knockout round at the 2016 European Championship after starting as the fifth-seeded team in its qualifying group.
At Euro 2016, McGovern’s saves in a 1-0 loss to Germany in Paris ensured his team advanced from their group. A three-goal defeat could have sent them home.
“The players gave him a round of applause when he came in the dressing room and, when that happens, you don’t really need the manager to say any more,” O’Neill said that day at Parc des Princes.
McGovern exchanged shirts with Germany counterpart Manuel Neuer, and started a friendly rivalry with Thomas Mueller.
The main photograph on McGovern’s Twitter account, @mcgov12, is a blocking save to defy Mueller. After Germany’s 3-1 win at Windsor Park last month, Mueller asked to swap signed shirts.
At Euro 2016, McGovern was technically without a job as a pending free agent. His reward was a three-year contract at Norwich, which was favored for promotion to the Premier League. McGovern played only 22 games in an underachieving mid-table finish.
This season, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola loaned England under-21 international Angus Gunn to Norwich, and McGovern has watched his teammates play from the bench.
On national team duty, he is protected by a well-organized squad.
“How Northern Ireland set defensively is very, very tight,” Zuberbuehler said. “You know you have a bank, a wall, in front of you and a feeling from the other 10 players that you want a clean sheet.”
The next few days can shape the season for the 33-year-old McGovern, with the second leg on Sunday in Basel.
If Northern Ireland goes to Russia with a goalkeeper who has not played a league game all season, well, they have done that before. At the 1986 World Cup, Pat Jennings played his final match, against Brazil, on his 41st birthday after having effectively retired a year earlier.