Football: Prospect bleak for Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland 1 Armenia 1
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The Independent Online

reports from Windsor Park, Belfast

Northern Ireland 1 Armenia 1

It is, perhaps, a reflection on the depths to which Northern Ireland have plummeted these past 10 years that Bryan Hamilton, their manager, should view the Manchester City vacancy with some interest, if not relish. It is all very well barracking Hamilton, as the not-so-faithful did at Windsor Park on Saturday, but if the clubs themselves are not producing players of high calibre what chance does an international manager have?

Hamilton took exception when it was put to him after this game that if the Irish should find themselves flat on their back after a couple of rounds against the makeweights of this World Cup qualifying programme (they previously lost at home to the Ukraine), how on earth can they hope to survive when they step in against the heavyweights, Germany and Portugal.

His angst was understandable. The minnows of world football now have teeth, as Ukraine underlined by beating Portugal on Saturday. That wasn't the case in the halcyon days of his predecessor Billy Bingham. It's a simple case of one country's fortunes falling while those of others are rising.

Take Armenia, for instance. The fledgling republic's all time competitive record of one win in 12 games may place them firmly in the underdog category, but on closer inspection one will see that while they finished bottom of their European Championship qualifying group nobody turned them over, including Spain, who could only beat them 1-0 in Seville. Furthermore, in their opening game to this campaign they had drawn at home to Portugal - and were, by all accounts unlucky to do so.

Strangely, they didn't look too clever in defence here. But when you have players hitting the crossbar from five yards, as Phil Gray did for the home team after three minutes, such weaknesses can be camouflaged. No such luck for the Irish.

Three minutes later a tendency to hesitate in their defence was exposed. Even so, it took a damn good ball to do it. Karapet Mikaelyan, breaking fast from deep after Neil Lennon had lost possession, curled a cross into no man's land between Alan Fettis and Keith Rowland. As they dallied, Eric Assadouryan seized possession to score.

By comparison, the equaliser from the atoning Lennon, his first for his country, was a dog's dinner of a goal, his mishit shot taking a deflection off a defender before rolling in off a post.

If Hamilton is to leave them (in the lurch?) for the main chance in Manchester - and there is absolutely no evidence of interest in him from that quarter - the Irish Football Association will have to reconsider the value of another full-time manager. Even Bingham was only part-time.

Hamilton, sounding distinctly like a man who has no intention of seeing this World Cup campaign through to the bitter end, feels that his legacy will be "a talented crop of young players". Again there is little evidence of that. One can only hope that what young promise there is does not have the life crushed out of it before there is a chance to develop. Next up is Germany, the European champions, in Nuremberg on 9 November. Trying times for the Irish, alright.

NORTHERN IRELAND (4-4-2): Fettis (Nottingham Forest); Nolan (Sheffield Wed), 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 (P Erevan), Oganesyan (Lokomotiv Moscow); Petrossyan (S Gyumri), Tonoyan (P Erevan), Mkhitaryan (P Erevan); Assadouryan (Guingamp), Mikaelyan (Sokol Saratov). Substitutes: Minassyan (P Erevan) for Tonoyan, 55; Ter-Petrossyan (Ararat Erevan) for Mikaelyan, 70; A Avetissyan (P Erevan) for Petrossyan, 82.

Referee: K Danilovski (Macedonia).

Booked: Northern Ireland Hill, Hunter, Dowie, Gillespie; Armenia Khachatryan, Petrossyan, Tonoyan.

Man of the match: Assadouryan Attendance: 8,357