A trio of first half goals are enough to see off Malta threat

1-0 (14) Jimmy Quinn
2-0 (24) Steve Penney
3-0 (26) Colin Clarke


1990 World Cup Qualification
UEFAGroup 6
Video: Goals
Sat. 21 May 1988
Kick-off: 3.00pm
Windsor Park, Belfast
Att.: 9,000¹
Ref.: Carlos da Silva Valente (POR)
L 1: José Guedes (POR)
L 2: Francisco Silva (POR)

(¹ One contemporary NIR source has 12,000)


Northern Ireland and Malta kicked off their campaigns for Italia’90 on a sunny Saturday afternoon in south Belfast.

This was in fact the very first match to be played in the European zone of the FIFA 1990 World Cup qualification, and the third qualifier in total on the global scale (kick-off was set a few hours prior to Jamaica – Panama). There is a pattern for this early kick-off between Northern Ireland and Malta in May 1988. In both the previous World Cup qualifications, Northern Ireland had kicked off their campaign before summer: against Israel (a) 26 March 1980, and against Finland (a) 27 May 1984. In 1984, they had even been joined by Malta in opting for an early kick-off, as the Mediterranean islanders played Sweden (a) 23 May 1984. It had evidently become a tradition by now for both teams!

Northern Ireland team news
After successfully qualifying for both the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, expectations had risen in Northern Ireland. The somewhat poor showing in the 1988 qualifiers had led to unprecedented criticism of Billy Bingham. In the opening match, Bingham had to do without starlet Norman Whiteside, who had been injured in the friendly against France in April and failed a late fitness test. Whiteside had been expected to play as midfielder in this match (instead, he took place in the commentary box for NIR television together with Jack Fullerton). In goal, Bingham had used three different goalkeepers in the 1988 qualifiers, each playing two games. But from the start of the road to Rome, Bingham stuck with Celtic goalie Allen McKnight. Throughout spring 1988, regular Celtic ‘keeper Packie Bonner was injured, and so McKnight was match fit before the game in Belfast.

Malta team news
Malta were without one of their star players, midfield playmaker and captain Ray Vella. It had looked like Martin Scicluna was poised for a place in the centre of Malta’s defense together with E. Camilleri – instead, Heese moved Scicluna up to midfield, and picked Joe Galea as center half. Camilleri would man mark Jimmy Quinn, Galea would have an eye with Colin Clarke.

Previous meetings
These two countries had never previously clashed, but two of the starting Maltese had played on Northern Irish soil back in the 1984/85 version of the Cup Winners’ Cup, when Ħamrun Spartans had knocked out Ballymena United in the first round with an aggregate score of 3-1. Both left back Alex Azzopardi and wide midfielder Michael Degiorgio had featured for Ħamrun, as well as substitute Leo Refalo.

Referee was Portuguese Carlos Silva Valente, who would be taking charge of his first ever World Cup qualifying tie. However, he had been present during the previous World Cup, where he had officiated in the game between France and Hungary (3-0). The Setúbal born official, 42 years of age, had also been in charge of two matches during the qualifying for the 1988 European Championships.

N. Ireland (4-4-2)

1 Allen McKnight24Celtic
2 Mal Donaghy30Luton Town
3 Nigel Worthington26Sheffield W.
4 John McClelland (c)32Watford
5 Alan McDonald24QPR
6 Michael O’Neill18Newcastle U.
7 Steve Penneysub 81′24Brighton & HA
8 Danny Wilson 43′28Luton Town
9 Colin Clarke25Southampton
10 Jimmy Quinn28Swindon Town
11 Robbie Dennisonsub 66′25Wolves

12 Phil Hughes23Wigan
13 Anton Rogan22Celtic
14 Paul Ramsey25Leicester
15 Bernard McNallyon 81′25Shrewsbury
16 Kingsley Blackon 66′19Luton
Manager: Billy Bingham

Malta (5-3-2)

1 David Cluett22Floriana
2 Edwin Camillerisub h-t24Hibernians
3 Alex Azzopardi 48′27Ħamrun Spartans
4 Joseph Galea23Rabat Ajax
5 Joe Brincat18Ħamrun Spartans
6 John Buttigieg (c)24Sliema Wanderers
7 Carmel Busuttil24Verbania
8 Charles Scerri23Hibernians
9 David Carabott20Hibernians
10 Martin Scicluna27Żurrieq
11 Michael Degiorgiosub 60′25Ħamrun Spartans

12 Reginald Cini17Valletta
13 Charles Micallefon h-t27Żurrieq
14 Leo Refalo21Ħamrun Spartans
15 Emanuel Lowell24Birkirkara
16 John Caruanaon 60′26Sliema Wanderers
Manager: Horst Heese

Tactical line-ups

Northern Ireland were in a traditional 4-4-2. Both full-backs, and particularly Worthington down the left hand side, would contribute by going forward, whilst McClelland remained focused on his defensive duties in the heart of the Irish defence. There was no proper holding midfielder, as both Wilson and young O’Neill were allowed to venture forward, indeed also a regular feature of both players’ game. All in all it was a very attack-minded set-up from Billy Bingham, and it nearly back fired early on, as the visitors came close on a couple of occasions. Soon, though, they would get a solid grip of the game through three goals in quick succession.

In his first qualifying match in charge of Malta, Horst Heese had opted for a formation which is not uncommon among German teams: a free man at the back, two man-markers (“Manndecker“), wing-backs, a holding midfielder, two half-backs to do the running, and two men up front. The wide men, Brincat on the right and Azzopardi on the opposite side, were often pushed so deep into their own half that they were unable to contribute in the opponent’s half, mainly having to attend to a Northern Irish winger each. Galea was keeping a watchful eye on Clarke, and E Camilleri saw to Quinn, as the two central defenders were performing their man-marking duties. Scicluna was put in the defensive midfield role during the first half, but for the start of the second period he was brought back into defence, with Camilleri being replaced by midfielder Charles Micallef, who took over Scicluna’s role as the rear midfield man. Scerri and Degiorgio were given the ‘errand boy’ roles in midfield. Carabott is occasionally seen wide right, whereas Busuttil is the designated centre forward, albeit he does also like to try and help out his midfielders from time to time, and is therefore also seen coming deep. Second substitute Caruana is a straight swap for Degiorgio for the last 30 minutes.

Match report

First half:
Malta set up to play with two marking central defenders: Joe Galea would attend to Colin Clarke, whereas Edwin Camilleri would keep an eye on Jimmy Quinn. John Buttigieg had a free role behind his central defender colleagues. Full-backs Joe Brincat on the right and Alex Azzopardi on the opposite side were a lot less tight in their marking, leaving space for both Steve Penney and Robbie Dennison to exploit down both flanks.

The Northern Irish defence was, as you would expect from a British side, all about zonal marking. David Carabott and the lively Carmel Busuttil, who was playing for Italian regional side Verbania (on the fifth tier of Italian football), were often left to their own devices up front for the visitors, but they did manage to cause some stir in the Ulstermen’s defence early on in the game, with the latter missing a gilt-edged opportunity having rounded Allen McKnight, and with an empty net in front of him he managed to hit the post when he was odds on to score. Big QPR defender Alan McDonald had been a bit careless in the build-up to this opportunity, not keeping a close enough eye on the diminutive Busuttil.

Having escaped this early scare, Northern Ireland gradually found their feet in the game, scoring three goals in the space of less than 15 minutes. But again Malta had their chances: Inbetween the first and second goal for the home side, Buttigieg had a well executed shot from free-kick that hit the bar. It wasn’t going to be Malta’s afternoon, however, and they had little to offer after conceding the third goal.
1-0: Camilleri and Brincat fail to clear a long ball from McClelland; Cluett could probably have done better to save Quinn’s sliced shot.
2-0: Penney. Worthington with a good run and cross from the left hand side, having been released by Dennison. Penney took a touch to steady himself and fired it left-footed into the top near corner with Cluett wrong-footed. It took a slight deflection off Camilleri on its way towards the net.
3-0: Clarke. Dennison’s trickery took him past Brincat and Scicluna before he passed it down the left hand side for Quinn, who in turn found Clarke inside the six yard area. He was left with an easy tap-in.
And only a few minutes later there was almost a fourth when Danny Wilson broke clear on the right flank and crossed for young Michael O’Neill, whose head didn’t connect properly with the ball, and he could only glance his header wide.

Second half:
Heese made one change at half-time: Edwin Camilleri gave way to midfielder Micallef, with Scicluna moving back into center-half. It was probably a matter of shoring up.

Malta rarely threatened Northern Ireland’s goal in the second half. But neither did the home side produce that much after the break, evidently happy with the scoreline. O’Neill appeared to have given Northern Ireland 4-0 with a header from Quinn’s cross, but the goal was controversially disallowed for offside. Another opportunity was spurned when Alan McDonald cleared the offside trap and was given the chance to finish from the edge of the box, but he was undecisive and it came to nothing.

All of the Ulstermen’s three goals had come from the left hand side, and Wilson did his best to balance things by making a few promising runs down the right hand side (a preferred move of his). Another goal did however never materialize, and it finished 3-0.

The game saw two bookings: Danny Wilson’s name was taken right before half time for a lunge at Michael Degiorgio as the Luton player vented his frustration having just been caught in possession, and Malta’s left back Azzopardi saw yellow when he tripped Steve Penney on the edge of his own penalty area just a few minutes after the re-start.

Jackie Charlton (with no six-pence), accompanied by his trusted assistant Maurice Setters, left Windsor Park with his note pad, as “You’ll never walk alone” rung from the Spion Kop. Billy Bingham, unsurprisingly, declared himself “extremely encouraged” with his team scoring three goals against the wind in the first half. As any international team manager will tell you, these games against the so-called minnows are what could come back to haunt you if you don’t deliever. The Ulstermen had got off to the perfect start. For Malta, it was time to go back home, dust off and set their sight on the home game against Hungary some six and a half months away.

Embed from Getty Images

(Above: Jimmy Quinn with Martin Scicluna in his heels. Image: gettyimages)


1 McKnight 6.7
apart from during the opening 20 minutes, he is rarely bothered
2 Donaghy 6.8
steady full-back duty, hardly elaborate
3 McDonald 6.3
seemed a bit edgy, gave away possession and was at fault for Malta’s big opportunity
4 McClelland 6.9
reliable centre-half performance from skipper
5 Worthington 7.1
very willing to join the attack, puts in good crosses
6 O’Neill 7.1
makes deep runs from his central midfield role, has goal mysteriously disallowed second half
7 Penney 6.9
a good tussle with his full-back, takes his goal well
(15 McNally –
a direct replacement for Penney. Was only involved once: He tried to get past Buttigieg having been set up down the line by Donaghy, but was eventually fouled)
8 D. Wilson 7.1
energetic as ever from the Luton man, thrives when he can trot down the right hand channel
9 Clarke 6.9
a handful for his marker, but other than the goal fairly anonymous
10 Quinn 7.4
playing a blinder, a big torn in the Malta defence throughout, good sliced shot for the opening goal
11 Dennison 6.8
can take heart from a solid if not spectacular performance
(16 Black –
won some rapturous cheers from the home support as he was brought on. Not a lot of action down his side after he had been brought on)

1 Cluett 6.4
sees the first goal late, the second takes a deflection so he can’t really be faulted, and other than conceding he doesn’t have a lot of saves to make
2 E Camilleri 5.9
unfortunate to be marking in-form Quinn, doesn’t get tight enough to his man
(13 Micallef 5.8
unable to make an impact on the game second half)
3 Azzopardi 6.4
enjoys a good battle with Penney, also not afraid to cross the halfway line, but not very productive up field
4 Galea 6.0
inexperience at international level shows a couple of times, and lets Clarke slip away for 3-0, but other than that not so much troubled
5 Brincat 5.9
concedes too many crosses from his side, and struggles to keep up with the pace
6 Buttigieg 6.7
looks a cut above the other defenders, but too casual at times. Very unlucky that his free-kick didn’t cross the line after rebounding off the crossbar at 1-0 down
7 Busuttil 6.8
lively and energetic, but how he could avoid to score having rounded McKnight not even he will know
8 Scerri 6.5
keeps himself busy in the centre of the park throughout with some tough tackling
9 Carabott 6.3
a bit light-weight but does show the occasional touch of promise
10 Scicluna 6.2
not what one would have expected from a seasoned campaigner, and a marking centre half role second half didn’t seem to suit him
11 Degiorgio 6.2
another one who disappointed, neither creative nor good enough defensively
(14 Caruana 6.1
comes on in a defensive capacity, pushing Brincat into midfield, at least there’s a distinctly lower number of crosses coming from his side in the final half hour)


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Paul Gellard

    Great coverage and I just about remember this game. John Buttigieg was actually watched by Brentford at this game and impressed them so much they signed him. Was a big thing for Malta to have a player playing professionally in England back then. Excellent work guys!

    1. kaltz

      Hey, Paul!

      Your comment is much appreciated. And thanks for that particular bit of info on John Buttigieg.
      I had the pleasure of going through all of Malta’s eight qualifiers, and though I do appreciate watching
      any team from this era, I must say I’ve taken some special personal satisfaction in covering the so-called
      lesser nations, Malta among them (Luxembourg and Albania certainly were two others in that category). To learn
      about the team, the manager and the players of this era has been a huge pleasure. It is not everyone who is
      able to tell their Joe Galeas from their David Carabotts, so to speak. I am proud to say I can. And just what
      an influence Ray Vella was on this team. He must have been held in such high regard by Horst Heese. Goalkeeper
      David Cluett, too, for that matter. Certainly another stand-out performer, along with Buttigieg and Carmel Busuttil.

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