Sheffield United 1 Manchester United 2 – Milk Cup Premier Final

August 1, 2009

This was written for the Sheffield Star


Sheffield United under 17s came within a last minute penalty claim to upsetting the odds and capping off a memorable week in Northern Ireland as they lost narrowly to Manchester United in their first appearance in the Milk Cup Premier Final. The Blades had reached the latter stages on goal difference and defeated F.C. Porto on penalties in Thursday’s semi-final in the prestigious youth tournament, which this year featured 50 teams from 18 countries.

Despite starting brightly with Shane Murray giving the opposing goalkeeper problems from distance, United fell behind to the defending champions on 16 minutes, when good link up play between Robbie Brady and Michael Ngoo saw the latter squeeze in the opener despite the best efforts of Sam Andrew and Terry Kennedy. United continued to close down the favourites effectively, and were almost rewarded at the end of the first half but Corey Gregory’s header went wide.

In the second half the match fell victim to the miserable conditions and tired legs in what was the teams’ fifth match in as many days. United hopes faded when on 52 minutes slick passing saw Etzaz Hussain finish the move he started, slotting home past the unfortunate Andrew.

The Blades continued to press however, and Murray continued to deliver dangerous set pieces. In stoppage time, it was a free kick swung in by the midfielder that caused confusion, leaving Kennedy to slot home from six yards. Moments later the referee turned down loud claims for a penalty after a United player was felled in the box.

Sheffield United (4-4-2) Sam Andrew, Kalum O’Kane, Harry Maguire (sub Joe Ironside 69), Terry Kennedy, Kingsley James (sub Liam Wilkinson 58), Kingsley Williams, Shane Murray, Jordan Stew, Ishmael Lammy (sub Elliot Witehouse 58), Corey Gregory (sub Troy Pennybrooke Morgan 53), Callum McFadzean
Coach: Kevin Fogg

Manchester United (4-4-2) Samuel Johnstone, Michael Keane, Ezekiel Fryers, Sean McGinty, Thomas Thorpe, Ravel Morrison, Etzaz Hussain, William Keane, Robbie Brady, John Cofie, Michael Ngoo
Coach: Paul McGuiness


Liechtenstein 1 Northern Ireland 4 (Match Report)

March 24, 2007

Published: Happy Days Issue 8

Liechtenstein 1 Northern Ireland 4

Northern Ireland came away from Vaduz with a convincing result despite giving not an altogether convincing performance. However, to return from a competitive away match having scored four goals without playing particularly well is a fantastic achievement. Add to that the fact that Northern Ireland never do particularly well under the label of favourites, and this scoreline was as important as it was flattering.

It was David Healy inevitably who was to be the star of the show, becoming the first Northern Irish player to score two hat tricks for his country. And whilst the same prestige may not be attached to this hat trick as to his previous one against Spain, there is no doubting the quality of his finishes. The record breaking talisman took his goals calmly and with accuracy that led Sanchez to declare him a “world class finisher”

Liechtenstein were confident on the ball and stroked it around crisply and succinctly in a way that former Northern Ireland captain Danny Blanchflower – a great ambassador for the passing game – would have been thrilled to witness. As a team they played with their heads held high, always looking for the attractive short pass rather than the ambitious long ball that the visitors preferred. A nervy first half was endured with Healy and Davis trying to see how dubious Peter Jehle was with some ambitious long range efforts. Rather than rattle him however, it seemed to help his confidence as he clawed away a goalbound Keith Gillespie shot at full stretch in what was Northern Ireland’s best effort in a fruitless first half; compounded by Chris Brunt’s inability to deliver any threatening set pieces. Indeed it was the home team who could have stole the lead at the end of the first period, when FC Basle’s Franz Burgmeier headed over from a Mario Frick cross when well placed. It was Frick who was the danger man for the home side, but a lack of quality and awareness from his team-mates meant that his menacing crosses were to no avail.

It took Northern Ireland just seven minutes of the second half to take the lead and calm the nerves of the majority away following. A mistake in the home midfield saw the ball fall kindly for Damien Johnson who fed Kyle Lafferty. A poor attempt on goal from the Burnley striker was quickly forgotten as the ball broke to Healy who slotted it into the empty net. Liechtenstein continued to press and a combination of Frick’s skill and Maik Taylor’s handling on a couple of occasions showed that this was not over yet. Healy eased Sanchez’s worries however, when on 75 minutes Gillespie showed a bit of pace and quality and knocked the ball forward for him, whose first touch took him onto his right foot before sending a reverse shot past the stranded Jehle. As Liechtenstein continued to press forward with their admirable style of football they got caught in possession on 82 minutes when a visionary pass from Steve Davis sent through Healy for his third, slotted coolly through Jehle’s legs.

Liechtenstein got their reward for their perseverance with the strike of the match; Burgmeier cutting in on his right foot and sending a sweet curling shot past Taylor from 18 yards. However it was the away fans who had the final cheer, when the impressive Gillespie sent a cross over from the right wing which was met beautifully by the head of the onrushing Grant McCann. All in all, there wasn’t a lot between these two sides, bar a little bit of quality in the green shirts, and an unforgiving Killyleagh finisher.

Northern Ireland 1 Latvia 0 (Match Report)

October 11, 2006

Published: Happy Days issue 7

Healy gives Latvians migraine
Northern Ireland 1 Latvia 0

David Healy was once again the hero for Northern Ireland as both crowd and players rose to the occasion of another Wednesday night at Windsor Park. What was more astonishing is that Healy played with a migraine for 90 minutes but it was the Latvian management who left Belfast with a headache. A 35th minute goal was enough to see off a team who looked nothing like the Latvia who played so well against Germany and Czech Republic in Euro 2004. Yet much of this was down to a dominant display from the boys in green based on ball retention and a tight defensive unit

If Latvia were high on confidence from their 4-0 defeat of Iceland four days previously then they certainly didn’t show it with some poor clearances from defence and an attacking approach which wouldn’t have looked out of place on a gravity-free pitch. Northern Ireland started the brighter of the two teams capitalising on some nervous Latvian defending with plenty of early balls into the box with Kyle Lafferty unlucky not to connect with a Johnson cross. With Clingan and Davis dominating the centre of the park and Gillespie providing width and pace the opening exchanges looked hopeful. One obvious weakness on the Irish team was the left side of midfield with Damien Johnson showing indiscipline in drifting into his more natural central midfield position which left young Jonny Evans exposed at times, although Latvian coach Andrejevs failed to notice and exploit this preferring instead his much more aerial tactic which didn’t trouble the pairing of Aaron Hughes and the ever impressing Stephen Craigan.

Northern Ireland struggled to create any clear chances, with a half chance falling to Lafferty on 24 minutes which he dragged wide of the post. Then just as Latvia started to show signs of their counter-attacking promise, a lovely clipped ball from Keith Gillespie found its way onto Healy’s head and a cushioned header over the bewildered Smirnovs sent him through one on one with the onrushing Kolinko and the Northern Ireland marksman slotted it through the former Crystal Palace keeper’s legs. It was just reward for the Northern Ireland striker who had shown patience when the final ball was oft found wanting. Lafferty could have made it 2-0 a minute later when he found himself free at the back post but hammered his half volley wide.

Latvia made one change at the start of the second half with Gorkss coming on for Smirnovs as they started to show much more attacking intent. Johnson was the last man to appear from the tunnel and spent the remainder of the game firmly on the left side of midfield, with Sanchez clearly having outlined his tactics to the Birmingham captain.

The first 20 minutes of the second half saw plenty of goalmouth action with the Latvian frontline scrapping in Maik Taylor’s penalty area and Healy seeing his curled shot scrambled clear by Kolinko. Northern Ireland had the ball in the net on 63 minutes when Davis slotted home from Gillespie’s slide rule pass but the goal was ruled out for offside against Lafferty, even though the Fermanagh lad didn’t appear to be interfering with play. Latvia’s best chance of the game fell to Karlsons on 71 minutes from a disputed freekick but his driven shot deflected off Taylor’s head and was eventually cleared by Evans.

That proved to be the last meaningful action of the game as Sanchez shut up shop to settle for a narrow win over one of the poorest sides at Windsor Park for many years with a performance that was one of the most assured

Denmark 0 Northern Ireland 0 (Match Report)

October 7, 2006

Published: Happy Days issue 7

Denmark 0 Northern Ireland 0
Almost 3,000 of the Green and White Army descended into the Parken Stadium, having spent all day getting their picture taken with the Little Mermaid, enjoying free samples on the Carlsberg tour and looking embarrassed in the Erotic Museum. The fans showed why they deserved their award as ‘Best fans in Europe’ by turning the main square into a Sea of Green and enjoying plenty of banter with the Danes on the way to the stadium. We were well received too, with many Danes staying behind after the final whistle to clap them off. I even bumped into a couple of Norwegians who had travelled down for the game because they heard that “the team who beat Spain have the Best fans!”

On the pitch, Northern Ireland showed once again that they can cut it with the big boys. It was always going to be tough against a team who hadn’t lost at home in over two years. Sanchez’s men never threatened to come away with three points, but a strong defensive rear guard meant that the Dane’s wouldn’t get them either. It was scrappy at times, but despite Denmark’s dominance in possession, they never really had any clear cut chances and found their efforts on goal mostly limited to outside the 18 yard box.

John Dahl Tomasson and Peter Lovenkrands went close with headers early on as Denmark started brightly, but Northern Ireland showed discipline as Denmark patiently prodded our backline. The game sprang into life just before half time when Martin Jorgensen fired a shot that took a deflection past Maik Taylor, but fortunately past the post as well while some of the home crowd prematurely celebrated. Two minutes later and Taylor was called into action, clawing away a Thomas Kahlenberg strike which Jonny Evans had to clear before the predatory Tomasson could get a sniff. Evans, who was winning only his second cap, was giving another performance of assurance and solidity which was completely in inverse proportion to his first team experience.

Northern Ireland, who hadn’t threatened the Danish goal in the first half saw their best opportunity saved by Sorensen on 50 minutes. Liverpool centre back Dan Agger tripped on the ball allowing David Healy a half chance from 15 yards but it was comfortably saved by the Aston Villa goalkeeper. It was hardly just reward for a frontline that worked hard, but saw little of the ball. Young Kyle Lafferty showed glimpses of his quality with some nice touches off the chest throughout. His replacement on 63 minutes was Steve Jones, who showed enthusiasm and energy, but lacked the instinct of a centre forward, never trying to get in front of his man or make runs into space when the ball was crossed into the box. With the fresh legs of Jones and Damien Johnson who was making his first appearance for the national side in almost a year, Northern Ireland did start to look threatening but it was Denmark who finished the game stronger. With the introductions of Claus Jensen and Birmingham star Niklas Bendtner, Denmark surged forward with greater purpose in the last quarter. On 81 minutes Jensen had a seemingly goalbound shot cleared heroically by Aaron Hughes, winning his milestone 50th cap. After a good spell of pressure on 85 minutes, Agger drove a shot that just brushed Maik Taylor’s crossbar. As the fourth official held up the board for 6 minutes of stoppage time, the disbelieving away fans found an extra lung to sing the team over the final whistle.
It might not have been a classy performance, but in this business, points prevail.

Northern Ireland v Iceland Match Report

September 2, 2006

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