Belfast Telegraph

Good times never seemed so good as Northern Ireland unbeaten run goes on

Wales 1-1 Northern Ireland

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland's unbeaten run goes on. Michael O'Neill's men made it NINE successive games in a row without defeat last night to equal a long standing record set by Billy Bingham's legendary sides, but as they left the pitch in Cardiff they did so with a tinge of disappointment.

They will feel the 1-1 draw in the friendly against Wales should have been a 1-0 away win.

Craig Cathcart had put the visitors ahead on the hour mark only for a debatable penalty award to rob Northern Ireland of a first friendly victory on the road in a decade.

In the 89th minute Gareth McAuley and Simon Church tangled in the box and when the Welsh striker fell, Scottish referee Steven McLean pointed to the spot. It looked a 50/50 call, but Church wasn't bothered. He grabbed the ball and banged it into the net much to the relief of the home supporters.

Overall a draw was probably a fair result in a game that lacked quality and was dominated by defences, but to lose a late goal in controversial circumstances was a tough one to take for O'Neill's players at the time. On the upside the Northern Ireland boys will get over it quickly.

After all, no points were at stake, this game was billed as all about preparation for the Euro 2016 finals and come Monday night they have a national record to aim for.

Avoid defeat against Slovenia at Windsor Park and O'Neill's side will have gone 10 games undefeated surpassing Bingham's great teams of the early 80s and the middle of the decade.

It's quite an incentive for the players, not least Cathcart whose season just keeps getting better and better.

He is on his way to Wembley with Watford in the FA Cup semi-finals, he is going to France with Northern Ireland in the summer and he can't stop scoring goals for his country.

Brilliant in defence all campaign for the Hornets, Cathcart displayed his qualities at the other end last night with a superb finish on the hour mark. It came after Oliver Norwood's clever short corner was lofted into the box by Paddy McNair. His cross was cleared but captain Steven Davis was alert to prod the ball back into the danger area for Cathcart to turn like a proven goalscorer and smash into the net.

Back in October he netted in Finland to earn a 1-1 draw which ensured Northern Ireland topped their Euro qualifying group and last night he netted the nation's first goal of a historic year.

The former Manchester United player is in the form of his life.

Last night Cathcart put in a solid performance alongside McAuley and Jonny Evans at the back, with Paddy McNair impressive in the holding midfield role. It was interesting to see O'Neill start the game with a 3-5-2 formation and change it at the break to 4-5-1. The players looked more comfortable with the latter which had been used throughout the successful Euro qualifying campaign.

On the day one of the greatest players ever to grace the game, Johan Cruyff, passed away the match was far removed from the Total Football the Dutch legend encouraged, but both managers will feel it was good preparation on the road to the Euro finals.

O'Neill gave a start and international debut to QPR striker Conor Washington (pictured). He worked hard enough but lacked quality in his 45 minutes.

He will hope to show more if given another opportunity against Slovenia.

With the Welsh missing the magic of the injured Gareth Bale, goal chances were few and far between.

Michael McGovern saved well from David Cotterill in the first half and Kyle Lafferty, who has joined Birmingham City on loan until the end of the season, saw his second half effort saved by Danny Ward.

Cathcart's strike arrived on 60 minutes.

Then came the late drama with Church spot on to earn his side a draw.

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