Benevolent soft spots

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The Independent Online
Northern Ireland 0 Ukraine 1

Even in the balmy days of the 1980s, Northern Ireland were never a team to be feared, respected maybe. To live with the best they needed passion and inspiration, players like Sammy McIlroy and Martin O'Neill who could raise their game to giddy heights, while at home there was no greater ally than Windsor Park on a winter's evening, when the wind and the rain swept down from the Black Mountain, chilling the opposition to the bone.

Last Saturday afternoon in Belfast was not a bit like that. The sun shone benevolently on the first international to be staged on a Saturday in the capital for 30 years but it only served to warm the spirits of the visitors. Permitted to settle into a low-key atmosphere, Ukraine ran out worthy winners of this opening qualifier in Group Nine.

Winning home matches is imperative in any qualifying competition and to lose to fellow outsiders represented the worst possible start for Bryan Hamilton's young team. It was their undoing in the Euro 96 qualifiers, and, unless they can quickly put it to rights, they can forget all about qualifying for the finals of a major competition for another couple of years.

Even allowing for their uncanny record of success against Germany and an unexpected draw against Portugal in Porto last year - both of whom they must face again in this group - qualification was always going to be a mighty tall order. But this Irish team is capable of giving a better account of itself, providing it maximises its resources like always. Keith Gillespie is no George Best but he does possess match-winning capabilities, as he demonstrated all too fleetingly here with a beguiling second-half run and chip which the Belfast Boy could not have bettered.

Sergei Popov popped up then to save the day for the Ukrainians with a headed clearance from under the bar, just as goalkeeper Alexander Shovkovskyi had managed to shovel away from the line a late deflection by Phil Gray in the first half.

These were rare moments of co-ordinated Irish pressure. Ukraine, on the other hand, defended resolutely while always being alive to attacking possibilities. The only surprise was that Viktor Leonenko, a lion-hearted little player, was not involved in the winning goal, a header by the substitute Sergei Rebrov that punished some slack marking.

When Saturday comes next for the Irish, at home to Armenia next month, it is to be hoped it will find them - and the weather - in a less hospitable mood.

Goal: Rebrov (79) 0-1

NORTHERN IRELAND (4-4-2): Fettis (Nottingham Forest); Griffin (St Johnstone), Hill (Leicester City), Morrow (Arsenal), Rowland (West Ham Utd); Gillespie (Newcastle Utd), Lomas (Manchester City), Lennon (Leicester City), Hughes (West Ham Utd); Dowie (West Ham Utd), Gray (Nancy). Substitute: O'Neill (Coventry City) for Griffin, 78.

UKRAINE (4-4-2): Shovkovkskyi (Dynamo Kiev); Luzhnyi (Dynamo Kiev), Golovko (Dynamo Kiev), Bezhenar (Dynamo Kiev), Skrypnyk (Dnipro); Orbu (Shaktyor Donetsk), Popov (Shaktyor Donetsk), Kalitvintsev (Dynamo Kiev), Luchkevych (Zaporozhye); Maximov (Dynamo Kiev), Leonenko (Dynamo KIev). Substitutes: Rebrov (Dynamo Kiev) for Luchkevych, h-t); Parfenov (Chernomorets) for Luzhny, 69; Kriventsov (Shaktyor Donetsk) for Kalitvintsev, 73.

Referee: A Sars (France).

Bookings: Ireland: O'Neill, Lomas. Ukraine: Leonenko.

Man of the match: Leonenko Attendance: 9,358.