09/09/2004

NI earn a draw in dramatic World Cup qualifier

Last night's Northern Ireland World Cup qualifier in Cardiff was a gruelling feat of endurance for fans; nearly 100 minutes of high-tempered, unpredictable, at times frustratingly unwatchable, heart-stopping drama – and that was just the refereeing.

Northern Ireland, reduced to nine men and spirits deflated after the Polish defeat, baffled expectation and held on to secure a creditable 2-2 draw against a talented Welsh side fighting hard for championship survival.

But equally baffling was the contribution from Italian referee Domenico Messina.

Mr Messina made his presence felt in the eighth minute with the double sending off of Michael Hughes and Robbie Savage for a tackle which led to some angry exchanges between both sets of players. It seemed harsh, but both were sent for an early shower.

Two minutes later, Jeff Whitley put the Irish in front with a crisp half-volley from the edge of the box. Then David Healy headed home a second in the 21st minute.

If only for a few seconds, Northern Ireland's 6,000 strong travelling support experienced the all-but-forgotten elation associated with watching their team outplay and out-score an opponent in a competitive fixture.

But David Healy's goal celebration earned him two yellow cards – one for interfering with the corner flag, and a second for gesturing in a fashion Mr Messina considered to be offensive. Healy later said he had merely been saluting to his parents in the stand.

Down to nine men with less than a quarter of the game gone, Northern Ireland knew it would be a near impossible task protecting their lead from an increasingly desperate and attack-minded Welsh side.

And so it proved. On the half-hour mark, John Hartson headed the home side back into the game after goalkeeper Maik Taylor seemed to lose his footing. When West Brom's Robbie Earnshaw nodded past Taylor in the 74th minute Wales looked like they might snatch the unlikeliest of victories.

But the Northern Irish back four of Hughes, Murdock, Williams and Capaldi – who unluckily had a penalty appeal turned down early on – dug in and cleared everything that came their way, each one putting in a man-of-the-match performance.

Wales pressured right to the last, and Cardiff defender James Collins ought to have buried Craig Bellamy's driven cross on 88 minutes. The Northern Irish had to endure a further seven tortuous minutes before Mr Messina decided he had finally seen enough and blew for full time.

After the game, Lawrie Sanchez said: "I thought the referee was very disappointing. I think he got lost in translation over David Healy's celebration. His family were up in the stands.''

He added: "We got a point and that's positive, but we should have had three. We were a better team with a man less, thanks to the referee."

For Wales, last night's all heart, no art performance sees their qualification hopes resting on a knife-edge. For Northern Ireland, looking to restore pride in Cardiff, this was a display equal to the epic clashes of the 80s.

But for Domenico Messina, his display earns him a place alongside Tofik Bakhramov (the Russian linesman of 1966 fame) in officialdom's carnival of the bizarre.

Northern Ireland will hope for better luck in next month's fixtures against Austria and Azerbaijan.

(gmcg)

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