UK teams look good

(BBC) – It’s been more than a decade since any home nation other than England qualified for a major tournament.

That would have seemed almost unthinkable through what was perhaps a golden age of the 80s when Scotland and Northern Ireland frequently played alongside the English on the world stage.

England’s qualification for the South African World Cup looks pretty much a given at the moment and could be sealed against Croatia at Wembley, but will they be on their own again?

Welsh fans certainly needn’t worry about updating their passports for the summer. A group including Germany and Russia always looked a tall order and that’s how it has turned out.

Few outside of Wales have seen the side play live in this qualifying campaign and need to bow to the opinion of those who have.

Judging from their results and the huge ranks of empty seats at the Millennium Stadium, the mantra that Wales have a crop of promising youngsters on the brink of making their mark is beginning to look a little tired.

Meanwhile the casual onlooker can see a fair bit of Scotland recently, including their last match – the 4-0 drubbing in Oslo.

George Burley saw that game turn on the decision to send off Gary Caldwell before half time. Once Norway had scored, Scotland simply wilted against a Norwegian side which had previously failed to win a single game in the group.

As a result they need to beat Macedonia and the Dutch at Hampden to have any chance of a play-off match with qualification as the prize.

Most pundits can’t see that happening. The exploits against France under Walter Smith and Alex McLeish seem a long time ago now.

True, the Scottish Football Association had little choice but to end the international careers of Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor. But the decision did nothing to help a squad which was already painfully short on quality.

The knives are well and truly out for George Burley in the press and it’s hard to see him surviving – the decision to leave James McFadden out in Oslo was baffling, some of his substitutions questionable and the result almost terminal.

That leaves Northern Ireland, who have got themselves into a wonderful position. They played in Poland last weekend knowing that they could still win the group and that second place and a play-off is a very real possibility.

Speaking to some of the players in Belfast before their flight to Chorzow, south of Poland revealed great optimism.

The mood was excellent; they seem to be a closely bonded group with a very real sense of being on the verge of something remarkable.

Many of the squad either play in the Championship or sit in the reserves in the Premier League, which makes their success all the more admirable.

Moreover the team is not about one man. David Healy might not agree, but the fact the goals are being spread among the group must be a good thing.

Their problem is that two of their remaining games are away with Poland first and the Czech Republic next month.

The next home game is against group leaders Slovakia in between the two aforementioned games.

At Windsor Park, Nigel Worthington has five wins and a draw from six competitive games as manager, so a win over Slovakia is essential.

If Northern Ireland can somehow win in Poland or Prague they may yet join England in South Africa next summer – and that would make them team of the year in the UK.