Published: Happy Days Issue 7
Northern Ireland 0 Iceland 3
The last time Lawrie Sanchez started an International qualifying campaign, Northern Ireland went into their first home game backed to the hilt by fans and media for a victory against Poland. They lost 3-0 and the hyper-inflated optimism burst quicker than a packet of crisps under Jim Boyce’s chair. Two years later and you couldn’t help but feel a sense of Déjà vu. Over talked and under performing, the team trudged off at half time to a chorus of boos, after an Eidur Gudjohnsen inspired Iceland scored three goals against a powerless Maik Taylor. It was a far cry from the last time these two teams met in Belfast, with Northern Ireland winning 3-0, goals coming courtesy of David Healy, Michael Hughes and debutant George McCartney. How we could have used the latter in this match at left back. Tony Capaldi will forever be remembered for his performance against Wales in 2004, but he simply is not a left back and time and time again against the Icelanders he got caught cold in his positioning.
Iceland had done their homework on Capaldi, and it invariably led to the first goal when Stephen Craigan suddenly found himself having to contend with two strikers, and Gunnar Thorvaldsson poked home to a loud silence at Windsor. Northern Ireland rallied and continued to play well, stringing passes across midfield and creating half chances. They were dealt another blow on 20 minutes however when a poor Joey Gudjonnson corner somehow found its way through a mêlée of defenders to the unmarked Herman Hreidarsson and the Charlton defender slammed home past the hapless Taylor. If Northern Ireland’s defence looked scared, they showed it by staying away from Gudjohnsen who was the instigator in this humbling, and the former Chelsea striker stroked in a third for the visitors on 37 minutes. It was a slice of fortune for Iceland, who just three minutes earlier had a Stuart Elliot free-kick to clear off the line, as Northern Ireland sought to find a way back into the match.
Whilst the first half yielded a disappointing result, it held elements of a positive performance. However, come the second half the heads had clearly dropped and the team looked happy to settle for ensuring that no more goals would be leaked. Unsurprisingly, Iceland too were happy to sit on their comfortable margin and the second half was a somewhat uninspiring affair. The home fans did have something to cheer about briefly, but a well worked Healy goal from a set piece on the hour was ruled out for a push by Elliot. Instead of entertainment on the pitch, the Windsor faithful watched with bemusement Sanchez’s tactical-nous. Kyle Lafferty came on for Elliot, and played a spell out on the left wing before swapping with Gillespie. They were positions that neither player looked comfortable in, as Sanchez seemed already to be looking towards the Spain game and using the second half as some sort of tactical experiment. The ineffective James Quinn who was showing the effects of a pre season where the only club he was in contact with was the chocolate biscuit, eventually plodded off on 83 minutes to give Warren Feeney his obligatory 7 minutes of game time. The final whistle eventually sounded to end the tedious contest with fans leaving dreading the visit of mighty Spain just four days later.
Much criticism was levelled at Sanchez and his players in the days following and although it was not undeserving for a lacklustre performance, it is unfair to expect players to adhere to unrealistic expectations of beating teams such as Iceland easily. Unless of course, it’s the local frozen food shop’s 5-a-side