NORTHERN IRELAND 0
Those connected with Italy, Serbia and Slovenia will not have lost any sleep last night after Northern Ireland turned in a miserable performance in their friendly in Tirana.
Nigel Worthington called for collective mental toughness from his side before the game. With those comments in mind, some scribes may be tempted to view the performance and result as a black mark in that particular column. The truth is simpler. Northern Ireland at anything other than their strongest are an average international side. Albania, while someway better than the footballing cannon-fodder of San Marino and Andorra, could be classed as slightly below average. Between them, they played out a dire game that was decided by a totally out-of-character moment of quality. There is one valid excuse that both sets of players can point to in mitigation for such an awful spectacle. Many village rugby clubs will have better pitches than the one on which two international teams had to play last night. Albania’s fairly solid home record, including draws with Denmark and Sweden in World Cup Qualification, can at least be partly explained by conditions which render any sort of quick passing game obsolete. With Northern Ireland missing the skillful ball-play of Chris Brunt on the left and the steadying influence of Sammy Clingan in the centre, it was perhaps no surprise that the game quickly degenerated into a niggly and attritional affair.
The hosts dominated in terms of teritory, but an end product was sorely lacking. The first 25 minutes passed with a few awkward moments in the visitors’ penalty area but these were brought about and often ended by mistakes on either side rather than any real invention. So the goal, when it came, was indeed ripe fruit from a poisoned tree. Ervin Skela of Koblenz produced a free kick from just right of centre 25 yards from goal. The ball was up and then down, the swerve was Beckhamesque, Taylor was beaten in his right hand corner and the Albanians were jubilant. They sensed only their second victory over the Province, the first having come in a ‘home’ qualifier for France ’98 that was played in Zurich because of political unrest in the country. As the first half wore on, an equaliser looked increasingly unlikely. David Healy’s magic has now worn off and he cut a dejected and isolated figure, feeding on scraps. Kyle Lafferty is at times impressive, but considering the Rangers forward’s height and build, he does not always make full use of his physical attributes.
The second half saw Albania content to sit back and keep what they had. That they were not broken down in open play suggested that whatever else, Josip Kuze has them playing in an organised system in which every player knows their role. Though France, Romania and Bosnia-Herzogovina should all have too much for them over two matches, some positive results should not be beyond them against Belarus and Luxembourg. They will, however, have to defend better against corner kicks, which were the only situations from which Northern Ireland looked like scoring. Grant McCann of Scunthorpe United has a cultured left footed delivery, and nearly conjured something up midway through the second half. First, Steven Craigan headed his flighted corner off the top of the crossbar. Then a whipped out-swinger from the other side caused a scramble in the penalty area. This time, the same player hit the post with a drive from close range and sub Rory Patterson’s follow-up was saved, at which point the referee’s whistle went for reasons unknown. In reality, a draw would probably have been a fair result on the basis that both sides were poor. Searching for positives amidst this backdrop may be akin to finding the Bermuda triangle, but there were at least a couple of questions on which the answer may be a tentative ‘yes’.
Andrew Little of Rangers had a solid game at right-back and should be a capable deputy, and long term successor, to Chris Baird. The arrival of Corrie Evans in midfield for the second half is encouraging for the future, possibly the immediate one. Flown in late from an under-21 game in San Marino, he is a player who many hope will have the same success as his more illustrious older brother. He did nothing special in this game, but Skela aside, that could apply to anyone who took part. Northern Ireland have now won one of their last twelve away internationals, the sole success a perfunctory 3-0 stroll past San Marino in the last qualifying campaign. Only they and Liechtenstein have been conquered by the team whose ‘green and white army’ always provide vocal support. That this has to be balanced against draws in Denmark, Sweden, Poland and the Czech Republic in recent times indicates the root cause of the problem. The province love and rise to the role of the underdog. One gets the feeling they would permanently typecast themselves as David against Golliath if they could. Their ability to raise their game in such circumstances remains as solid as ever. Northern Ireland are also so much better than the genuine minnows of the footballing world that defeat to the Faroe Islands in Euro 2012 qualification is unthinkable.
It is in games where they maybe start as slight favourites but the opposition is live that their results tail off alarmingly. But for Iceland and Latvia, the green and white army would have graced Euro 2008. One hopes we do not say the same about Estonia in two years time.