It was a blow for Bryan Hamilton's team and also for his captain, Iain Dowie, West Ham's Hatfield-born striker who became the first non-Ulster man to lead the nation in a competitive match. Dowie was winning his 37th cap after making his international debut six years ago when at Luton.
He replaced the Stoke defender Nigel Worthington, who was relegated to the substitutes' bench and replaced by Dowie's club-mate, Keith Rowland. Hamilton named the Arsenal utility man Steve Morrow alongside Colin Hill in the centre of defence.
Ukraine twice went close to taking the lead in the first hour before the home team showed signs of getting on top.
The Northern Ireland goalkeeper, Alan Fettis, stuck out his left foot to save from Victor Leonenko in the 10th minute after the striker had been put through by Yuri Maximov.
The Ukrainians, fielding six players from Dynamo Kiev, looked dangerous on the break and Sergei Popov fired wide after Yuri Kalitvintsev had carved out the opening.
But the Irish had their moments early on as they carved out two opportunities. Keith Gillespie floated in a free-kick, only for Phil Gray to head wide. Then Gray, now playing for French side Nancy, got away from his marker after Dowie had flicked the ball on. Gray looked up but hit his 20-yard lob over.
There was a moment of controversy seven minutes from half-time when the Irish claimed a goal. Gray got in the way of a shot from Danny Griffin and keeper Alexander Shovkovskyi appeared to drop it over the line.
He quickly scooped the ball away amid a hail of protest butthe French referee only awarded the Irish a corner.
The Irish almost suffered a setback a few minutes later when Maximov's header was well-saved by Fettis. Then Maximov teed up Kalitvintsev and his firmly struck free-kick went just wide of the post.
Northern Ireland created out a good opening at the start of the second half when Rowland sent in a teasing cross. Dowie got away from his marker only to see his header go over the crossbar.
The Ukrainians continued to look dangerous and Fettis again came to the rescue after Sergei Bezhenar knocked the ball over the top. Leonenko got away and fired in a fierce shot only for the Forest keeper to make a superb block.
Midway through the second half, Keith Gillespie, the Newcastle winger, collected the ball inside his own half and went on a mazy run through the Ukraine defence and his chipped pass was volleyed over the bar by Gray.
Hamilton then shuffled his pack, bringing off 19-year-old Griffin and sending on the Coventry midfielder Michael O'Neill in an attempt to break the deadlock.
Two volleys from Michael Hughes flew past the Ukraine goal before the visitors, having soaked up some strong home pressure, broke out to score what turned out to be the decider, Rebrov arriving at the far post to head home a cross and silence the home crowd.Reuse content