Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland feeling blue after Berra's late header seals Scotland victory

Scotland 1 Northern Ireland 0

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland's awful record in friendlies continues. The last victory in an international with no points at stake was back in 2008.

That seven-year itch was not scratched last night at Hampden Park as substitute Christophe Berra gave Scotland a narrow win over the men in blue away shirts with a late headed goal.

The Ipswich Town star nodded in from six yards after a Matt Ritchie corner, helping Gordon Strachan's side to victory on home turf.

Berra climbed above Aaron Hughes to split the sides with 85 minutes gone when it seemed the uninspiring encounter was headed towards a dreary scoreless draw.

Hughes, winning his 95th cap, felt he was fouled but English referee Martin Atkinson, who sent off Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard against Manchester United on Sunday, allowed the goal to stand.

The Scots deserved it. If anyone merited victory it was them in a match that won't live long in the memory.

Used as a warm-up to vital Euro 2016 qualifiers for both countries on Sunday, both managers might say they got something out of the game but it certainly wasn't entertainment.

While Scotland should coast past Gibraltar at the weekend, Northern Ireland fans will hope last night was the calm before the storm that hits Finland at Windsor Park in a hugely important Group F encounter.

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill opted to shuffle his pack in Glasgow, resting some key performers ahead of Sunday's qualifier. In his starting line-up he had a mixture of young players and more established internationals, who have been short of game time for their clubs recently.

With Steven Davis on the bench, Manchester United's Jonny Evans, in the middle of a six-match FA ban, captained the side in his first appearance for his country since November 2013. Hughes partnered Evans in central defence with the more youthful Daniel Lafferty and Paddy McNair playing in the full-back positions.

It was a proud night for United teenager McNair, making his Northern Ireland debut.

There was a five-man midfield anchored by Chris Baird with Ben Reeves and Oliver Norwood either side of the versatile West Brom star and Stuart Dallas and Josh Magennis operating on the flanks. MK Dons forward Will Grigg was the lone striker for the visitors.

Steven Fletcher led the line for the Scottish, who were skippered by Darren Fletcher, with the influential Scott Brown and Steven Naismith on the bench.

Prior to kick-off, thankfully, there was more respect shown to the memory of Scotland legend Dave Mackay than the national anthems, which were jeered by the opposition fans.

Applause echoed around the stadium in tribute to Mackay, buried in Edinburgh earlier this week.

As is often the case with friendlies, there wasn't the same intensity as in a competitive fixture but that didn't stop the Green and White Army making an almighty noise inside the acoustic stadium.

The 2,000 travelling fans were here to enjoy themselves and were encouraged early on when Dallas showed pace and poise down the left flank to beat his marker and whip in a dangerous cross. It was not the only time the Brentford player made Scotland right-back Steven Whittaker look ordinary.

Dallas was the bright spark for Northern Ireland in an opening 45 minutes when they gave the ball away far too much, presenting the home side with opportunities to attack.

Had Ikechi Anya been more clinical, he could have bagged himself a couple of goals. O'Neill was grateful for the Watford man's wastefulness and Hamilton goalkeeper Michael McGovern.

In only his second match at this level, the Fermanagh native did himself no harm at all with some fine saves, including impressive stops to deny Steven Fletcher in the opening and closing minutes of the first period.

At least there was some action before the break. After it, the only points of note, until the goal came along, were the songs from the vociferous Northern Ireland fans and a late substitute appearance for Davis, who showed his class with clever touches.

It was dull. Really dull. Berra finally got the Scottish support going with that late header to decide the contest.

It means Northern Ireland still haven't scored at Hampden since Billy Hamilton did it 34 years ago and it means Northern Ireland haven't won at the ground since 1974 when Tommy Cassidy netted the only goal.

It also means O'Neill still hasn't won a friendly as Northern Ireland manager.

Nobody will care about that if he leads the team to victory against Finland on Sunday and takes the country a step closer to the Euro 2016 finals in France.

That's the game this week that really counts.

Belfast Telegraph