FINLAND'S COACH, Richard Moller Nielsen, had warned his players that Northern Ireland would approach the European Championship qualifier against them on Saturday "not as underdogs, but bulldogs". He was absolutely correct. The bulldog spirit may have been seriously lacking in a 3-0 defeat away to Turkey last month, but give a dog a bone - or a goal - in Belfast and you will struggle to get it back.
As in Lawrie McMenemy's previous two home matches since taking charge last spring, his charges yapped and snapped and hung on with admirable tenacity to the one goal they were able to get their paws on.
Keith Rowland, a bit-part player with Queen's Park Rangers, scored after 30 minutes and although Jonatan Johansson missed three chances, a disappointing Finland did not quite deserve to achieve a draw. Moller Nielsen followed his neat canine metaphor with an equally apt summing-up of Northern Ireland's qualities: "They work very much as a unit. There may be better players elsewhere in Europe but they work very much for each other. Our players are not used to this pace at international level. It was too fast for them."
Even if the locals recognise that there is a long way to go to recapture the glory days of the Eighties, they are responding with enthusiasm, and each successive win so far has put 1,000 on the gate for the next game. That improvement should continue for the visit on 18 November of Moldova, a fixture which puts the declared target of six points by Christmas well within reach.
Not that the Moldovans, beaten 3-2 by Finland in their opening game, will be underestimated. "They looked a terrific team," said the goalkeeping coach, Pat Jennings, of that match, as McMenemy and his coaching staff flew back to London on Saturday night, touching down at Heathrow to learn that Turkey's 1-0 win over Germany had put a slightly better gloss on their own defeat in Istanbul.
On the same plane, offering generous congratulations, was the previous manager, Bryan Hamilton, who had eventually been undone by a World Cup record of only one win in 10 qualifying games, with just six goals scored. Hamilton, on scouting duty for Norwich, was pleased to see the Norfolk club's Adrian Coote score for Northern Ireland's Under-21 side against Finland, but until Coote or West Bromwich Albion's James Quinn (not to be confused with Swindon's Ulster warhorse Jimmy) develop further, Iain Dowie will continue to carry a heavy burden in attack, where he had to be supported on Saturday by Wimbledon's Michael Hughes.
Although only two goals short of Colin Clarke's record 13 for his country, Dowie averages almost five games per strike. At the moment he also suffers, like many of his international team-mates from not playing regularly at club level, in his case because at QPR he is a player-manager who is managing rather than playing. Along with Newcastle's Keith Gillespie, who disconcerted the Finns with some surging dribbles, Dowie was spent before the final whistle and had to be substituted.
"It was only Gillespie's third game in six months," said McMenemy. "The lads aren't getting enough first-team football. But given the mixture of youth and veterans and the lack of match practice, it was a wonderful performance. I'm delighted for everybody concerned.
"The major plus was the number of chances we created. We haven't been noted for that, because we lack forward power. The next stage is that we've got to start converting more of them."
McMenemy admitted that he had a sharp word with the fourth official, who originally indicated that there was one minute of added time to play, then changed it to four. As it turned out, there was no need to worry; even after bringing on Ajax's Jari Litmanen, who had not been fit enough to start, Finland did not manage to force goalkeeper Alan Fettis into more than one save, which he had made in fine style from Johansson soon after Rowland's goal.
The boys of the bulldog breed cannot wait to get at the Moldovans.
Goal: Rowland (31) 1-0.
Northern Ireland (4-4-2): Fettis (Blackburn); A Hughes (Newcastle), Patterson (Dundee Utd), Morrow (QPR), Horlock (Manchester City); Gillespie (Newcastle), Mulryne (Manchester Utd), Lennon (Leicester), Rowland (QPR); M Hughes (Wimbledon), Dowie (QPR). Substitutes: McCarthy (Birmingham) for Gillespie 70 mins; O'Boyle (St Johnstone) for Dowie, 80 mins; Quinn (West Bromwich) for Rowland 88 mins. Finland (3-5-2): Niemi (Rangers); Hypia (Willem II), Ylonen (Haka), Ilola (HJK); Reini (Genk), Riihilahti (HJK), Valakari (Motherwell), Kolkka (PSV), Kautonen (MyPa); Johansson (Rangers), Paatelainen (Hibernian). Substitute: Litmanen (Ajax) for Riihilahti 75 mins.
Referee: Z Arsic (Yugoslavia).
Man of the match: M Hughes.Reuse content