Northern Ireland suffer embarrassing defeat

Albania 1 Northern Ireland 0
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The Independent Online
Northern Ireland's World Cup campaign went from bad to worse yesterday when a goal by Altin Haxhi consigned them to defeat against an Albanian side obliged to play their "home" games away.

Last month's defeat by Germany ended Northern Ireland's hopes of reaching the finals in France, but they have their seeding for the 2000 European Championship to consider. Bryan Hamilton, their manager, hopes they will finish ahead of Armenia in Group Nine, but that could now be a struggle. Last night's defeat means that the Irish could well have to win in Portugal next month to have a chance of overhauling theArmenians.

The Irish were nervous from the start, but that was not surprising since injuries and suspension forced Hamilton to make six changes to the side beaten in Germany last month.

"It was very disappointing to lose so many players," he said. "The young players I brought in didn't play very well, but we have to regroup, recover and believe in ourselves once again.

"I accept full responsibility for the defeat, but I know these players will get better and in years to come Northern Ireland will have a strong base of quality players."

Hamilton brought St Johnstone's 20-year-old Danny Griffin, Wigan's Pat McGibbon and West Ham's Keith Rowland in to defence, while Tommy Wright replaced the dropped Aidan Davison in goal and both Steve Lomas and Iain Dowie returned from injury.

"One or two of the younger players did themselves credit, but as a team we were very poor," Hamilton said. "The players have let themselves down and let Northern Ireland down, but I have had a long chat with them and they will bounce back - as Irish teams have had to do in the past."

It was Albania's first victory over Northern Ireland in eight attempts and their first of the qualifying campaign, but it was fully deserved. Forced to play in Switzerland because of continued civil unrest at home, they responded to noisy support from 2,600 fans, part of a substantial Albanian community here. Their goal after 69 minutes came when Colin Hill's clearance fell to Haxhi 20 yards out. His shot beat Wright and went in off the post.

ALBANIA: Strakosha (Panionios); Tole (Partizan Tirana), Shulku (Apollon Athens), Xhumba (Heraklis), R Vata (Apollon Limassol), Fakaj (Flamurtari Vlora), Peco (SR Delemont), Haxhi (Panahaiki), Kola (Panathinaikos), Bushi (Apollon Athens), Tare (Fortuna Dusseldorf). Substitutes: Gallo (Tirana) for Haxhi, 65; Halili (Kastrioti Kruja) for Peco, 65.

NORTHERN IRELAND: Wright (Manchester City); Hill (Trelleborg), Griffin (St Johnstone), McGibbon (Wigan), Gillespie (Newcastle), Rowland (West Ham), Horlock (Manchester City), Lomas (West Ham), Lennon (Leicester), Quinn (Blackpool), Dowie (West Ham). Substitutes: McMahon (Stoke) for Quinn, 76; Mulryne (Manchester Utd) for Rowland, h-t; Sonner (Ipswich) for Lennon, 83.

Referee: R Philippi (Luxembourg).