Northern Ireland pay hosts plenty respect and eventually win deservedly
|Rep of Ireland
Northern Ireland’s World Cup aspirations were fading fast. They had lost three matches in succession, and needed to win in Valletta not just in order to lift their spirits which had been on a downward spiral of late, but also to re-establish themselves as contenders for the second spot in the group. The Ulstermen were perhaps looking to miss out on a World Cup for the first time since Argentina ’78. They had also failed to record a goal since comprehensively beating Malta 3-0 on the opening day of the group, but it would not be easy against a team that showed through their recent draw in Budapest that they must be taken very seriously.
Malta had to make do without reliable left-back Alex Azzopardi, who was suspended following his second yellow of the campaign in Hungary. However, manager Horst Heese had available again left-sided player Michael Degiorgio, who had just served his suspension for the harsh sending off he had suffered in Seville. Heese again had to rely on his usual suspects, with little change in the starting eleven expected, other than that forced upon him by said suspension. This would be Malta’s third qualifier in a month, and the mood in their camp must have been on a high coming into this fixture following the well-taken point in Budapest.
Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham had no suspension worries, but central defender Alan McDonald, who had been serving his one match ban in their 2-0 home loss to Spain in February, was out injured. It was also rumoured that Bingham would wish to beef up his midfield for this particular tie, as he knew that Malta could try and get physical to get opponents out of their stride. There was also a worry regarding goalkeepers: Bingham had selected Tommy Wright and Allen McKnight, but neither could get into their struggling English first division teams at the moment, with Wright playing second fiddle to Irishman Gary Kelly on Tyneside, whereas West Ham veteran Phil Parks had ousted McKnight at Boleyn Ground.
Ta’ Qali presented itself in familiar conditions: sunshine and wind. The crowd was expectant, and not without a fair contingent of travelling support for the Northern Irish, with “You’ll never walk alone” very much audible once the marching band had finished performing the two national anthems. The match would be directed by a Romanian referee, who was rather refered to as “Dan Petrescu”, not as “Stefan Petrescu”, just like his name sake playing international football for South East Europe’s only Latin country. Here on Malta this phenomenon was no unusual occurence: Malta midfielder Charlie Scerri has his namesake in Charles Scerri the internationally acknowledged referee, who had been in charge of Yugoslavia against Luxembourg in the qualifying for the Spain ’82 World Cup.
¹ The official FIFA report from this match shows D Cauchi wearing #2 and E Camilleri #3. However, this is wrong. Correct is as stated above, with E Camilleri playing in the #2 shirt (more or less as usual) and with D Cauchi wearing the #3
|1 David Cluett
|2 Edwin Camilleri
|3 Denis Cauchi
|4 Joe Galea
|5 Charles Scerri
|6 John Buttigieg
|7 Carmel Busuttil
|8 Ray Vella (c)
|9 David Carabott
|10 Michael Degiorgio
|11 Martin Gregory
|12 Reginald Cini
|13 Hubert Suda
|14 Jesmond Delia
|15 Joseph Falzon
|16 Silvio Vella
Northern Ireland (4-4-2)
|1 Tommy Wright
|2 Gary Fleming
|3 Nigel Worthington
|86′, sub 87′
|4 John McClelland (c)
|5 Mal Donaghy
|6 David McCreery
|7 Danny Wilson
|8 Lawrie Sanchez
|9 Colin Clarke
|10 Jimmy Quinn
|11 Kevin Wilson
|12 Allen McKnight
|13 Anton Rogan
|14 Michael O’Neill
|15 Kingsley Black
|16 Robbie Dennison
Well aware of Malta’s potential threat along the flanks, Bingham is eager to cut these lines and keep control through players who are well capable of running their shoes off. Both Wilsons do alright in this respect, but Malta appear in a different shape than they have done when they’ve been at their most creative. Both their flank players also had to perform defensive duties, leaving them less energetic in the final half of the pitch, thus making the Ulstermen’s task easier. McCreery and Sanchez both sit relatively deep in midfield, and they don’t mind inviting Malta at them, only to hit direct balls for Clarke and Quinn to flick on to either of the two Wilsons when counter-attacking. Denying Malta space is what eventually wins Northern Ireland this tie. They had learnt a lesson from the home tie, in which they had conceded a lot of room before getting their act together and scoring three times themselves.
Prior to kick-off, there was a minute’s silence for the victims of the horrific tragedy which had occured at Hillsborough only eleven days earlier, where indeed Northern Irish right back Gary Fleming had featured in the Nottingham Forest matchday squad, despite the fact that his only first team appearances of the 1988/89 season were limited to playing against Chester City in the second round of the English League Cup.
Northern Ireland kicked off with the wind in their faces. Bingham had opted for Newcastle’s Tommy Wright between the sticks, perhaps in order to help shaking things up a bit after their three straight defeats. There had been no vital errors on Allen McKnight’s behalf. In the backline, Mal Donaghy would again partner captain John McClelland, a combination which had worked quite well against the Spanish. With Fleming coming in for Anton Rogan/Paul Ramsey at right back, it meant that the manager had changed two of his rear five. The pre-match talk of adding some ‘meat’ to their midfield was clearly evident in Bingham’s selection: both their wingers, Robbie Dennison and Kingsley Black, had been relegated to the substitutes’ bench, with the two Wilsons of Danny and Kevin, no relation, taking the right and left wide berths respectively. However, they were no ordinary wingers, playing a lot less wide, giving the impression that Northern Ireland almost played with four central midfielders. Danny Wilson had previously in the qualification been seen enjoying runs out towards the right hand side of midfield, and now he got his ‘reward’. The strikers partnership of Jimmy Quinn and Colin Clarke, which had not been seen in a starting tandem since Ulster’s 0-0 draw at home to the Republic, were given another opportunity, having previously done well against the Maltese with each accounting for a goal in their 3-0 win in Belfast almost a year earlier.
Horst Heese had gathered a lot of courage from Malta’s performance and result in Hungary, and where he would usually deploy two full-backs in a 5-3-2, he now instead opted for wide midfielders, giving his system more the appearance of a 3-5-2. In addition, playmaker Ray Vella, who had been sitting deep in all of their four previous matches, had been shifted further up field, leaving Martin Gregory to perform in the anchor role. Michael Degiorgio returned to the side after his suspension, and since Heese probably saw no clear substitute for suspended Alex Azzopardi, the more forward-thinking formation could be seen as a product of Degiorgio’s involvement. On the opposite flank, Denis Cauchi, who had done well in Budapest, was given freedom to roam forward, with Joe Galea and Edwin Camilleri, again, looking after Colin Clarke and Jimmy Quinn respectively, just like had been the case in Belfast. John Buttigieg would continue in his free role, often carrying the ball into the Northern Irish half. Captain Vella seemed to revel in his more advanced role, also inspiring Charlie Scerri into another decent performance, this time the midfielder’s seen with socks around ankles from kick-off. Strangely, he would be wearing shin pads for the second half. Up top the lively ‘Il-Bużu’ would, as usual, accompany David Carabott.
Northern Ireland were happy to sit back and let Malta have most of the possession early on. Malta’s point in Hungary had been a result of some deft counter attacking play, but it seemed quite clear that they were a lot less unsure what to do when they had to be the creative party. Even if they did push the Ulstermen back, assisted by the strong win, there was not a lot of goalmouth action in front of Wright, and the Northern Ireland backline coped well, with Mal Donaghy impressing in particular. It seems fair to say he’s been their best player over six matches. Gradually, the visitors came back into the game, and they gave as good as they got, with both Quinn and Worthington guilty of a couple of rough challenges, making Buttigieg and Gregory suffer respectively. Danny Wilson had a couple of clever runs down the right hand side, but his crosses were comfortably dealt with by Cluett, and at the other end Gregory did twice test Wright with long range efforts, the latter excellently tipped over by the goalkeeper. Scerri had also had an effort tamely wide, and heading towards the break it was evident that the home side were in the ascendancy. However, there was still time for a slip-up from Cluett, who was unbalanced and carried the ball across his 18 yard line. The resulting free-kick was hammered high over the bar by Quinn. 0-0 was probably a just scoreline, despite Malta edging the tie so far.
Having been on top before the break without being able to break down the visitors, Malta came out second half with their tails up. However, playing into the strong wind did not do them any favours, and so the visitors were looking the stronger early on. Malta soon found their composure and started playing balls along the deck. There did seem to be a couple of occasions on which the hosts were struck by complacency: Buttigieg and Gregory tried to play their way out of defence in a short passing move which also involved Galea, but the Ulstermen pressed high up the pitch and the ball broke for Sanchez, whose left footed shot went over. Shortly after came the opening goal: Scerri misplaces a pass straight onto Kevin Wilson, who feeds it high into the Malta penalty area from a central position about 35 yards out. The direct ball seems to catch Galea by surprise, and as he is having second thoughts about making the clearance, Colin Clarke intervenes and gets his foot on the still loose ball. It loops over the head of Cluett, and slightly against the balance of play Northern Ireland are ahead. How would Malta respond?
One could see one or two heads drop within the home camp. They would still enjoy some possession, but the pace at which they had been going about things with earlier seemed slower all of a sudden. The solid Northern Ireland defence would cope with whatever was being thrown at it, which for about a period of ten minutes after the goal wasn’t a whole lot. Then Busuttil burst into life with a run past Donaghy and a shot that Wright could only parry into the direction of Carabott, but his ball back into the six yard area was eventually cleared away by Fleming. The visiting supporters were enjoying their afternoon by now, and were in good voice in their renditions of “Here we go”.
Shortly after Buttigieg picked up the game’s first booking for appearing to kick McCreery’s shin after the ball had been played on, probably as a result of an earlier altercation between the two. Malta would replace the inefficient Cauchi with Silvio Vella, meaning a few changes in tactics among their personell: The substitute went to central midfield, possibly with Ray Vella and Edwin Camilleri sharing responsibility for the right hand side. Bingham brought off Sanchez for O’Neill at the same time in what appeared to be a straight swap. A few minutes onwards, young Floriana defender Jesmond Delia came on for Carabott to make his international debut. Carabott had also had a fairly average match. This would mean that both Buttigieg and Gregory would go up top in what seemed like desperate measures from Heese, a result of Michael O’Neill’s 2-0 goal, a left footed finish from the edge of the box which had taken a big deflection off Buttigieg’s head. Big Delia was on a couple of occasions seen trying to seek out Buttigieg with long balls from his own half. This kind of tactics, however, was exactly what Northern Ireland would have wanted.
The second half also sees a couple of rather weak penalty claims from the home side, firstly against Worthington, who pulls down Busuttil just outside the box, and then secondly against Donaghy, who blocks with an outstretched arm a well-hit shot from Camilleri after a one-two with Buttigieg. It is mainly the partizan crowd which reacts, though a couple of players are really upset that the ref just lets play pass after Camilleri’s blocked effort. The second booking of the afternoon goes, for whatever reason, to Worthington, who might have said something in the ref’s direction after a challenge with Scerri. The duel itself wouldn’t even warrant a free-kick. Worthington, who’s had another decent performance, can rest for the final few minutes as young Celtic full-back Rogan takes his place.
Without putting on a show, Northern Ireland return home with both points, and Malta have probably let themselves down more than anything else. The match was there for the taking. They had an opponent which treated them with a lot of respect, and Bingham’s tactics of sitting deep and stifling the home team’s most creative players paid off. Is there still a chance for the Ulstermen to join in the hunt for second place?
1 Cluett 6.5
again in command of his area. Gives away a free-kick when he handles outside his area. Can not be blamed for either goal.
2 E Camilleri 6.6
a sound job as marker on Quinn. Replaces Cauchi wide right towards the end of the game.
3 Cauchi 6.1
probably more comfortable with a full-back role rather than playing wide right and having to contribute going forward.
(16 S Vella –
Northern Ireland retreat after making it 2-0, shortly after his arrival. Not seen a lot.)
4 Galea 6.4
respectable performance on Clarke with one great exception for when he concedes his man and lets Clarke score.
5 Scerri 6.5
a lot of heart as always, but not much end product in a more central capacity again.
6 Buttigieg 6.6
sweeps well, enjoys coming forward, and gets the final 12-13 minutes playing up front as Malta chase a goal.
7 Busuttil 6.5
not as lively as he’s been in previous matches, always loses out, no surprise, to McClelland in the air. One fine moment when he pulls inside and fires from just over 20 yards, only for Wright to palm it away.
8 R Vella 6.6
as instrumental as always in what the home side tries to achieve, but final ball lets him down.
9 Carabott 6.4
not able to stretch the Northern Irish defence as he might have hoped.
(14 Delia –
slots into a defender’s role when coming on. Plays it simple.)
10 Degiorgio 6.5
busy on the left hand flank, where he has to cover a lot of space. Better defensively than when attacking.
11 Gregory 6.5
deeper than usually, gets through a lot of work, and goes up front when Carabott comes off. Two decent efforts from target at the end of the first half.
1 Wright 7.0
equal to all three efforts from distance that the home side muster. Looks confident.
2 Fleming 6.7
happy to be playing as he struggles for game time, and links up alright with D Wilson.
3 Worthington 6.8
some big clearances from the back, and keeps it tight down his side. Booked for kicking the ball away.
(13 Rogan –
gets the final three minutes.)
4 McClelland 6.7
easy task when dealing with a few high balls, no remarkable job along the ground.
5 Donaghy 7.2
a very competent performance from the solid defender. Solid in the tackle and in his positioning.
6 McCreery 6.8
shows good stamina in the central areas, keeps on running right through to the end.
7 D Wilson 6.8
is not out of sorts playing out wide, but also enjoys life when he can cut inside and participate more.
8 Sanchez 6.5
tidies up well, but lacks in creativity.
(14 O’Neill –
shows his goalden touch as he scores shortly after coming on. Other than that fairly anonymous.)
9 Clarke 6.7
some big tussles with Galea, always a handful and gives his all.
10 Quinn 6.4
a much more quiet game than his strike partner. Kept silent.
11 K Wilson 6.6
does not get involved as much as he’d have liked when playing out left, but does cover a lot of ground. Respectable performance defensively.