Football: Irish point way to failure

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The Independent Online
Northern Ireland 1

Lennon 30

Armenia 1

Assadouryan 8

Attendance: 8,357

For Northern Ireland, the road to France 98 is already beginning to look like a dead end. After two World Cup home games against two of Group Nine's lesser lights, they have procured just a point.

Bryan Hamilton's team travel to Nuremburg next month to face Germany and, with Portugal also lying in wait next year, a top-two finish looks almost out of reach. After a European Championship campaign in which Northern Ireland almost denied their neighbours from the Republic a place in last season's Anfield play-off against Holland, their poor form is a big disappointment for their fans.

After August's 1-0 home defeat to Ukraine, a win against Armenia was essential if Northern Ireland were to kick-start their qualifying campaign. The early omens were good, with Phil Gray crashing a third-minute shot against the bar, but five minutes later, to the huge delight of their small but noisy band of supporters, Armenia were ahead.

Nolan, making his international debut here, was outpaced down the left flank by Karapet Mikaelyan. The cross was deep and Eric Assadouryan, a 30-year-old striker with more than a decade of experience in the French League, was lurking beyond the far post. His shot gave Alan Fettis no chance.

The Irish response was brisk but unproductive. Gray stooped to head just wide in the 13th minute, and there were vain claims for a penalty when Gray was bundled over by the goalkeeper, Roman Berezovski, in the 27th minute, but the equaliser arrived three minutes later.

Gillespie and Michael Hughes had switched wings to try to improve the flow of crosses, and when Gillespie swung the ball in Neil Lennon took advantage of a hesitant defence to shoot home, with the aid of a deflection off Vardan Khachatryan.

The former Soviet Republic's rearguard was looking anything but a solid red line, but Northern Ireland were not playing anything like well enough to take further advantage. The Belfast crowd had to wait until the 58th minute for the next near miss, when Hughes cut in from the right and saw his shot beaten out by Berezovski. Gray headed the rebound goalwards, but the goalkeeper recovered to clutch the ball on the line.

Hamilton, who is the latest manager to be linked to the Manchester City vacancy, introduced Jim Magilton and Gerard McMahon, the former Tottenham forward, on the hour to try to improve matters, but to little avail. His players looked keen, but penetration was elusive - especially as the Armenians were crowding out Hughes and Gillespie on the flanks.

From a Hughes corner, Dowie headed just over in the 78th minute, and Lomas sent a fierce 25-yard drive over the bar in the last minute. By then, though, the crowd had lost patience - not just with their team but also with the fussy Macedonian referee, who booked seven players in a match without a bad tackle.

"We had a lot of creative players out there," Hamilton said, "but none of them did themselves justice. There are no easy games any more. I knew this would be a difficult game, and it was. I arranged these two home fixtures against Ukraine and Armenia in the hope of getting some points on the board, but it hasn't worked out."

The final whistle was greeted by boos from all but the delighted Armenians, who had seen their team gain only their fourth point away from home.

Northern Ireland (4-4-2): Fettis (Nottingham Forest); Nolan (Sheffield Wednesday), Hill (Leicester), Hunter (Reading), Rowland (West Ham); Gillespie (Newcastle Utd), Lomas (Manchester City), Lennon (Leicester), Hughes (West Ham); Dowie (West Ham), Gray (Nancy). Substitutes: Magilton (Southampton) for Lennon, 60; McMahon (Stoke) for Gray, 60; O'Neill (Coventry) for Gillespie, 80.

Armenia (1-4-3-2): Berezovski (Zenit St Petersburg); Hovsepian (Pyunik Erevan); Soukiasyan (Kavalla), Vardanyan (Shirak Gyumri), Khachatryan (Pyunik Erevan), Oganesyan (Lokomotiv Moscow); Petrossyan (Shirak Gyumri), Tonoyan (Pyunik Erevan), Mkhitaryan (Pyunik Erevan); Assadouryan (Guingamp), Mikaelyan (Sokol Saratov). Substitutes: Minassyan (Pyunik Erevan) for Tonoyan, 55; Ter-Petrossyan (Ararat Erevan) for Mikaelyan, 70; A Avetissyan (Pyunik Erevan) for Petrossyan, 82.

Referee: K Danilovski (Macedonia).