Football: Irish find a silver lining: Guy Hodgson sights two beacons amid Hamilton's gloom

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AN ART of managership is to find something to cling to in adversity and Bryan Hamilton managed it even though the entrails of Northern Ireland's European Championship qualifying defeat by Portugal were not promising. The problem was that jam seemed more likely to arrive tomorrow rather than today.

Losing 2-1 at home in a competitive Group Six did not suggest the Irish are likely to grace the finals in England but maybe brighter times are ahead in the shape of Manchester United's Keith Gillespie, 19, and Manchester City's Steve Lomas, 20. They were beacons on an evening when the gap in skills between the Irish and Europe's best seemed to have maintained the width that has been apparent since Ireland's last qualification for a major championship, the 1986 World Cup.

'I was delighted with Gillespie,' Hamilton said of the fleet-footed winger. 'He did remarkably well on his international debut. Lomas was very, very good, too. They were the pluses for us.'

The negatives were their lack of experience, which suggests France '98 rather than England '96 might be a more realistic target, and Ireland's inabilty to cope with the Portuguese. The range of movement and quality of passing bewildered the men in green who were incapable of properly marking midfield players running through to support the sole striker, Sa Pinto. 'I knew they were good,' Hamilton said, 'but I didn't realise they were that good.'

The play-maker orchestrating this Irish reel was Rui Costa, a product of the Portuguese World Youth Cup winning teams of 1989 and 1991, and who cost Fiorentina pounds 5m when he was bought from Benfica in the summer. He scored one goal and might have had three more. The prospect of his promptings being garnished by a fit-again Paulo Futre is awesome, not to say frightening for the Irish teams from both sides of the border.

'The margin was too narrow considering the difference in performance,' the Portuguese manager, Antonio Oliveira, nitpicked afterwards. 'With the chances we had we could have built a result that was historic.'

He should worry. On Wednesday night's evidence historic performances should arrive shortly; Ireland have a longer wait ahead of them.