Savage blow for Wales but Earnshaw makes point

Wales 2 - Northern Ireland 2
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The Independent Football

In crude terms it was a draw but barely two minutes after the end, you could see what kind it was. Most of the stadium was deserted and yet in one corner 5,000 Ulstermen indulged in the kind of frenzied celebrations that are simply not associated with football in Northern Ireland. Wales, you thought, ought to have been the ones cheering and waving banners; they had, after all, come back from two goals down and had been reduced to 10 men. The trouble was, Northern Ireland had nine.

In crude terms it was a draw but barely two minutes after the end, you could see what kind it was. Most of the stadium was deserted and yet in one corner 5,000 Ulstermen indulged in the kind of frenzied celebrations that are simply not associated with football in Northern Ireland. Wales, you thought, ought to have been the ones cheering and waving banners; they had, after all, come back from two goals down and had been reduced to 10 men. The trouble was, Northern Ireland had nine.

The Northern Ireland manager, Lawrie Sanchez, said his best chance of victory was by use of "controlled aggression". He was half right; from the moment "God Save the Queen" was jeered down, aggression was everywhere in Cardiff. Control, however, was entirely absent.

All the arrogant confidence with which Wales approached this fixture exploded inside 10 minutes, time enough for Michael Hughes to scythe down Robbie Savage from behind, a tackle that the Birmingham player said was designed to break his leg. Savage sprang to his feet and pushed Hughes away, the Crystal Palace man raised his fist and Domenico Messina, a referee who will not be forgotten quickly in Cardiff or Belfast, flashed two red cards.

Astonishingly, given Savage's reputation, this was the first time he had ever been dismissed and, to his unbearable frustration, he will miss next month's encounter with England at Old Trafford.

Two dismissals in one half is normally enough, but this was no ordinary evening. As David Healy celebrated his team's second goal, a cup was thrown at him from the stands; the Preston striker responded with an obscene gesture and Sanchez had to organise a team with nine men, something a career at Wimbledon should have prepared him for. Neither manager said he understood the reason for Healy's departure and when Messina failed to award a penalty for a foul on Tony Capaldi, the outstanding player of an extraordinary night, Sanchez was overwhelmed by anger.

"He contributed quite a lot to the loss of two points," he said. "David Healy went over to celebrate with his family and said something that was lost in translation into Italian; a sensible man would have left it alone. To hold out for an hour with nine men was remarkable. It is something the players will remember for the rest of their lives."

All the controversy tended to obscure the fact that Northern Ireland had scored twice in a competitive fixture, when scoring once from open play was something they had not managed in three years. The first came when the Welsh were still recovering their shape and composure from Savage's dismissal. James Collins, the young Cardiff centre-half who was strangely and probably wrongly preferred to either Robert Page or Andy Melville in central defence, half-cleared a long punt upfield. Jeff Whitley, who grew up in Wrexham playing football with Savage, met the clearance with a fabulous drive that left Paul Jones helpless.

Worse was to follow for both Collins and Jones, who had what could be kindly described as a difficult first competitive international. He slipped with the ball at his feet and Healy suddenly found himself clear on goal. His first shot was straight at the keeper but he nodded the rebound into an empty net. Mark Hughes, hand on his hips, would have been swallowed by despair had Healy not decided to taunt the Welsh public.

Healy's dismissal gave Wales an opening and Hughes pushed at it by introducing Robert Earnshaw. Against Azerbaijan, he drew criticism for waiting too long to bring the striker on; last night he got an hour and scored the equaliser with 15 minutes remaining, nursing a header into the net, having missed at least three better chances.

Wales might have had more than a single goal before half time. The one they did get was a beautifully taken header from Celtic man John Hartson, booed by the Irish contingent, that nestled precisely in the corner of Maik Taylor's net.

Earlier, Hartson said defeat to Northern Ireland was "unthinkable", part of a chorus of complacency from Welsh players who claimed they would be "amazed" and "stunned" if they did not win. Sanchez thought they now had as much chance of making the World Cup finals as Northern Ireland, which is no chance at all.

Wales: (4-4-2): Jones (Wolverhampton); Delaney (Aston Villa), Collins (Cardiff), Gabbidon (Cardiff), Thatcher (Manchester City); Oster (Sunderland), Savage (Birmingham), Speed (Bolton), Koumas (West Bromwich); Bellamy (Newcastle), Hartson (Celtic). Substitutes: Earnshaw (West Bromwich) for Delaney, 28; Parry (Cardiff) for Thatcher, 64;

Northern Ireland: (3-5-2) Taylor (Birmingham), A Hughes (Newcastle), Murdock (Hibernian), Williams (Milton Keynes), Clyde (Wolverhampton), Johnson (Birmingham), Whitley (Sunderland), M Hughes (Crystal Palace), Capaldi (Plymouth), Healy (Preston), Quinn (Willem II). Substitutes: Smith (Preston) for Quinn, 57; McVeigh (Norwich) for Smith, 89; McCartney (Sunderland) for Capaldi, 90.

Referee: D Messina (It).

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