Dowie on display

Northern Ireland 2 Dowie 12, 21 Albania 0 Attendance: 7,935
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At the fourth attempt, Northern Ireland finally earned their first win of the World Cup qualifying campaign with a competent but lacklustre performance against a limited Albanian side. Only their captain Iain Dowie, who scored both goals, had real reason to celebrate, as qualification for France 98 remains a distant dream for his side despite these three points.

Northern Ireland went into this Group Nine tie after achieving one of the best results of their recent history last month: a 1-1 draw in Germany. However, after gaining only one point from their home games against Ukraine and Armenia, Northern Ireland had much to prove.

Although he was without several injured players, including Newcastle's Keith Gillespie, the manager, Bryan Hamilton, was able to name the line- up that started in Germany. Albania were below strength for more bizarre reasons: two of their players had been stranded in Greece due to the farmers' blockades there.

The home side were slow to start and the best football in the early stages was played by Albania, with Altin Rraklli causing problems with his speed off the mark and tricks on the ball. From their first proper attack, though, Northern Ireland went ahead in the 13th minute. Steve Lomas pushed the ball through a defender's legs on the left flank and crossed for Dowie to power home a far-post header.

Colin Hill charged up from the back to shoot a foot wide from 25 yards in the 20th minute but the second goal was not long delayed. Two minutes later Michael Hughes took a right-wing corner, Steve Morrow flicked the ball on and Gerry Taggart's shot was deflected in by Dowie.

Neil Lennon stooped to head just wide from an Ian Nolan cross as the men in green and blue pressed forward. Although they were not playing with any great fluency, Northern Ireland looked capable of scoring more goals because of the Albanians' defensive deficiencies.

After the break Hamilton's side were eager to shoot from distance, and Blendi Nallbani, the Albanian goalkeeper, was unable to hold a 25-yard shot from Hughes and had to rely on his defence to clear. Then Nallbani dived to his right to beat a fierce long-range shot from Lomas.

The crowd of fewer than 8,000 fans were in a subdued mood but were roused in the 68th minute when Dowie nearly completed his hat-trick. The busy Hughes crossed from the right and the West Ham centre-forward was left unmarked, but saw his header come back off a post. That, though, was the last time the Irish looked like scoring until Nallbani punched over Kevin Horlock's shot two minutes from the end.