24 November 2012

Ballymena showdown ends in draw

Andrew Hoey equalises for Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland's hopes of winning the Victory Shield were ended in Ballymena, as they could only manage a home draw against Wales.

It was a true game of two halves at the Ballymena Showgrounds. Wales dominated the first half, during which they took the lead, but Northern Ireland fought back in the second to give Desi Curry's men their best Victory Shield finish since 2007.

NI had the first chance of the game after two minutes, but Jordan Thompson's free-kick was well caught by Lewis Thomas, and the visitors soon began to take control of proceedings.

In the 9th minute, a fantastic long-ball from Ioan Evans picked out the Welsh team's brightest star, Danny Byrnes, who lobbed over the home keeper Brett Long. Sadly for the Oldham Athletic prospect, the shot was inches wide of the target.

Wales broke through on 14 minutes, when captain Joseff Morrell's free-kick was flicked in at the near post by the head of Everton's James Graham.

Tricky winger Daniel James could have won the Dragons a penalty in the 19th minute, when he was on the end of a couple of strong challenges from Irish left-back Mark Edgar. A minute later, NI had their own penalty claim turned down, although Cian Harries appeared to block Jonathan Smith's cross with his hand.

Northern Ireland had a rare opportunity when Greg Law outmuscled Morrell in the 31st minute, and hit a fine pass to Smith. Although Smith's close-range shot looked like hiting the side-netting, Wales keeper Lewis Thomas decided not to take any chances and palmed it out for a corner.

Five minutes from half-time, James took the ball from the half-way line and sprinted towards the goal, with only a block by Long's foot preventing him from increasing Wales' lead.

All in all, it was a good first-half display from Wales, particularly from their midfielders. Attacking players Byrnes and James were a constant threat to the Northern Ireland defence, and Lloyd Humphries was proving to be a good ball-winning anchor.

Sadly for the Welsh team, Byrnes would only last a few minutes after the break, having suffered an injury which ended his game prematurely.

The second half was, in some ways, a mirror image of the first. Wales had the first real chance of the half on 49 minutes - the impressive James hit the far post from the very edge of the penalty area.

Then, Northern Ireland scored in the 14th minute of the period. The equaliser came from Glenavon midfielder Andrew Hoey, who slotted the ball home from a tight angle. Lewis Thomas appeared to hurt himself while bravely trying to stop Hoey.

Very soon afterwards, in the 56th minute, Wales striker Connor Lemonheigh-Evans used his strength to force Long into fumbling a catch. The Bristol City boy could have scored were his shot not blocked by a nearby NI defender.

Throughout the game, Lemonheigh-Evans took advantage of some shoddy Northern Irish defending, creating chances out of nothing. When he was substituted, the Dragons never looked like retaking the lead.

Indeed, Northern Ireland were looking the side more likely to win it. Stephen Fallon's excellent 64th-minute through-ball, coupled with a slip by Graham, gave Smith the perfect chance to make it 2-1. His first shot was saved by Lewis Thomas, but by the time he could tee himself up for a second, Humphries had raced back to put the ball out for a corner.

Right-back Seanna Foster put in another strong performance for Northern Ireland, and on 72 minutes, his goalward cross nearly found Smith, but a Welsh defender headed it over to prevent an almost certain goal.

When Fallon fired over in the dying minutes, NI's hopes of getting the win they required to have a chance of sharing the Shield were dashed. However, this team has shown itself to be greater than the sum of its parts, and Curry can be very proud of how his boys have played this year.

That's more than can be said for Wales, who underperformed despite having a number of highly-rated attacking talents in their squad. Osian Roberts' squad have had trouble scoring in 2012, and the coach has plenty of work to do if 2013 is to be a better year for the Dragons.

NORTHERN IRELAND: Long; Edgar, Whiteside (Mallon), Quigley, Foster; Hoey (Barton), Law, B Kennedy; Thompson (Doherty), J Smith (Mooney), Fallon.
SCORER: Hoey 54.

WALES: L Thomas; Harries, Graham (Parry), Evans, Pearson; Morrell, Humphries; Edge, Byrnes (D Thomas), James; Lemonheigh-Evans (Bellamy).
SCORER: Graham 14.

TDTR Man of the Match: Daniel James (Wales). The Hull City winger was a consistent danger to Northern Ireland, and looks like being one of the finds of this season's Victory Shields.

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