Gray's bright start for McIlroy

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Sammy McIlroy's inaugural competitive international here was fast becoming another chapter in the catalogue of frustration that had seen Northern Ireland garner only two victories from their previous 18 matches. However, the new manager is clearly reading from a fresh script and his introduction of Phil Gray late in the second half proved decisive. His first international goal in nearly five years got Northern Ireland's World Cup qualification campaign off to a winning start against Malta yesterday.

Sammy McIlroy's inaugural competitive international here was fast becoming another chapter in the catalogue of frustration that had seen Northern Ireland garner only two victories from their previous 18 matches. However, the new manager is clearly reading from a fresh script and his introduction of Phil Gray late in the second half proved decisive. His first international goal in nearly five years got Northern Ireland's World Cup qualification campaign off to a winning start against Malta yesterday.

The breakthrough was achieved after 70 minutes of stupefying stalemate as a 4-5-1 formation failed to yield a goal for the home side. They began aggressively and Colin Murdock headed over from Kevin Horlock's free-kick. David Healy, who scored in the Irish's 3-0 friendly success when the sides last met in March, was presented with a chance when the Maltese goalkeeper, Ernest Barry, dropped Horlock's corner, but his effort was blocked.

Horlock had two chances inside 60 seconds. First, on receiving a pass 16 yards from goal by Damien Johnson, who beat three Maltese defenders, the Manchester City midfielder lifted his shot over the bar. He then broke through on the right, but Barry managed to touch his shot away. The profligate Horlock then scuffed a shot after being played through.

Malta sent the hosts' pulses racing by almost securing the lead in the 22nd minute. David Carabott broke through on the right and squared the ball to George Mallia, who had the goal at his mercy. However, the striker erred, his shot finding the foot of the post when the the net was the easier target.

In response, Jim Magilton let fly a rising drive from 25 yards which flew narrowly over the crossbar. Malta mirrored the Irish's inability to turn chance into gain as Mallia's header flew over the crossbar after capitalising on Ian Nolan's weak clearance.

Only the timely intervention of Luke Dimech then prevented Healy from scoring after he had worked himself goal-side of the Malta defender Darren Debono.

The debutant Stuart Elliott was the next Irish player to be thwarted by Dimech. Horlock challenged Barry at the near post for Nolan's cross and when the ball fell to the Motherwell midfielder his flick was cleared off the line. Elliott almost benefited from Magilton's endeavours but his shot passed wide of the far post.

Horlock's crosses from the left flank proved potent as the second half commenced. Debono blocked Gerry Taggart's header from one delivery, while Jeffrey Chetcuti turned another behind for a corner.

Yet still the Irish could not breach their Group Three opponents' bulwark and their frustration became evident as Healy was booked for following through on Debono.

McIlroy then decisively reworked his formation, introducing Gray for Elliott in the 61st minute. The Burnley striker, winning his first cap since November 1998, joined Healy in attack as the Irish switched to a 4-4-2 formation. Nine minutes later, the benefit was tangible as Gray swept home Horlock's ball to satisfy Irish cravings for an opening goal and a positive start for McIlroy.

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