Simon Church’s late penalty earned injury-hit Wales a draw against a solid Northern Ireland side in a friendly between two Euro 2016 outsiders.
The visitors took the lead through Craig Cathcart’s smart finish in the second half after a dull first period, with large parts of the game played in the midfield.
Prior to kick-off fans observed a minute’s silence in memory of the victims of this week’s terrorist attacks in Brussels which killed 34 people and left scores injured.
Wales started brightly and went close through right-wing crosses in the first few minutes, first George Williams’ tempting cross just evaded a Welsh head, then Sam Vokes nodded Chris Gunter’s delivery wide of the post.
The away team were searching for their first victory over Wales since 1980 and tried to play Wales at their own game, lining up with a 5-3-2 formation similar to that played by Chris Coleman through the qualifying campaign.
Coleman opted for a 4-2-3-1 this time around, reflecting the need for change with both the pace of Gareth Bale and drive of Aaron Ramsey missing, as both players sat the game out through injury.
Quickly the game settled down with both teams adapting to their new formations. The Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis represented his side’s biggest creative threat, worrying the Welsh defenders with his quick feet and vision.
Wales went close on 20 minutes as winger David Cotterill forced Michael McGovern into a save from a free kick 25 yards out, sending his shot underneath the wall.
The rest of the first half was a tale of half chances and defensive solidity as the side’s effectively cancelled each other out.
Northern Ireland switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation to match Wales for the second half, with Nottingham Forest’s Jamie Ward replacing debutant Conor Washington to play on the right wing and left wing-back Stuart Dallas pushing forward.
The tactical change seemed to work for the visitors as they took the lead on the hour mark, Watford centre back Cathcart spun in the area after a well-worked corner kick caused panic in the penalty area.
Wales cranked up the pressure after the goal but a number of substitutions towards the end of the game disrupted the flow of the match. Jonny Williams produced an encouraging attacking display but breaking down the Northern Irish defence proved a tough task.
The pressure told however, and just before the 90 minutes were up substitute Simon Church was hauled down by McAuley. Church stepped up himself and put the penalty into the left corner, levelling the match.
Wales will now travel to Ukraine on Tuesday for their next friendly on the step of their preparations for Euro 2016 in France.
What the managers said…
Wales boss Chris Coleman:
“We knew before we kicked a ball we’d come up against a good Northern Ireland team; very committed, very organised.
“It was a chance to look a bit closer at players like Lloyd Isgrove and Danny Ward. Sometimes it’s not always about the result.
“I was pleased with the guys – it was a slippery pitch and we tried to pass the ball, and kept calm. We didn’t panic and lob the ball, and that’s how we won the penalty.
“They worked hard, found it difficult to break Northern Ireland down and got what we wanted out of it.
“From where I was I thought it was a penalty, but I haven’t watched it back.
“I was pleased for Simon Church. For him to earn the penalty and score it, I was chuffed for it. I always get asked about Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey and I understand that, but players like Sam Vokes and Simon Church never let you down.”
Northern Ireland’s Michael O’Neill:
“Having gone ahead it was disappointing to lose the goal in the manner that we did.
“I think we looked comfortable. We expected Wales to have possession and put on pressure and we dealt well with that.
“We’ve learned that we can play with three at the back, but there are things we need to work on.
“We didn’t get enough in terms of opportunity out of the front two players, we probably looked more comfortable in the system we played in the second half.
“I’m concerned about my record in competitive games. If we lose the odd friendly I’m not concerned about that.
“As a squad we’re not picking from a plethora of riches in terms of where the players come from, but we’re a tight-nit group and we’re a threat from set pieces.”
Wales (4-2-3-1): Hennessey (D Ward 46′); Gunter, Chester, A Williams (c), Matthews; Vaughan (Allen 71′), Ledley (Crofts 46′); G Williams (Isgrove 62′), Lawrence (J Williams 62′), Cotterill; Vokes (Church 76′)
Unused Subs: Fon Williams, Henley, Richards, MacDonald, Huws, N Taylor.
Goal: Church (89′)
Northern Ireland (5-3-2): McGovern; McLaughlin (Hughes 81′), McAuley, Evans (D Lafferty 73′), Cathcart, Dallas; Davis, McNair (Paton 73′), Norwood; K Lafferty (McKay 81′), Washington (J Ward 46′)
Unused subs: McCullough, McGinn, Ferguson, Carroll, Hodson, Carson, Smith
Goal: Cathcart (60′)
Wayne Hennessey – 6 – Nothing to do for Wales’ number 1. Replaced by Daniel Ward (46′)
Chris Gunter – 5 – Didn’t see much of the usually forward-thinking full-back.
James Chester – 6 – Didn’t do much wrong and was a threat at set pieces.
Ashley Williams – 6 – Solid enough at the back.
Adam Matthews – 6 – The natural right back was out of position on the left, but equipped himself well enough.
Joe Ledley – 5 – A bit anonymous. Positionally good but in Vaughan’s shadow. Replaced by Andrew Crofts (46′)
David Vaughan – 6 – Assured in the tackle and kept the ball well, but didn’t offer an attacking threat. Replaced by Joe Allen (71′)
George Williams – 6 – Struggled physically against a tough defence. Grew into the game and showed flashes of flair. Replaced by Lloyd Isgrove (62′)
Tom Lawrence – 5 – Outnumbered by three centre halves and a defensive midfielder, struggled to make an impact. Replaced by Jonny Williams (62′)
David Cotterill – 7 – Wales’ creative outlet, but couldn’t craft anything clear cut. Went close with free kick
Sam Vokes – 5 – Held the ball up well enough but had no real chances. Replaced by Simon Church (76′)
Daniel Ward (45′) – 5 – Not the debut he perhaps hoped for, picked the ball out of the net and did very little else.
Andrew Crofts (45′) – 5 – Not much of an improvement on Ledley.
Jonny Williams (62′) – 6 – Involved in the little that Wales did well in the final third towards the end.
Lloyd Isgrove (62′) – 5 – Didn’t have many opportunities on his debut.
Joe Allen (71′) – 6 – Didn’t have much time but put himself about.
Simon Church (76′) – 7 – Won and scored the penalty.
Michael McGovern – 6 – Good save from Cotterill’s free kick, not much to do otherwise until he faced Church’s penalty.
Conor McLaughlin – 6 – Got forward plenty from right wing-back but no final product, did well up against Cotterill at the other end. Replaced by Aaron Hughes (81′)
Craig Cathcart – 7 – Solid game in defence and took his goal well.
Gareth McAuley – 5 – Was solid up until he gave away the penalty, silly challenge to make.
Jonny Evans – 6 – See Craig Cathcart, minus the goal. Replaced by Daniel Lafferty (73′)
Stuart Dallas – 6 – Operated efficiently at left wing-back and got forward willingly. Replaced by Shane Ferguson (90′)
Oliver Norwood – 6 – Worked his socks off, positionally good, but no moments of note.
Paddy McNair – 7 – Disciplined performance from the Manchester United youngster, cut out many Wales attacks and crossed for the opener. Replaced by Paul Paton (73′)
Steven Davis – 7 – Good performance from the Northern Irish skipper. His team’s driving force.
Kyle Lafferty – 5 – The enigmatic striker wasn’t up to much today. Replaced by Billy McKay (81′)
Conor Washington – 5 – The QPR man was full of running on his debut, but not much else. Replaced by Jamie Ward (46′)
Jamie Ward (46′) – 6 – Offered an outlet on the right and pressurised well.
Daniel Lafferty (73′) – 5
Paul Paton (73′) – 6
Billy McKay (81′) – 5
Aaron Hughes (81′) – 5
Shane Ferguson (90′) – N/A
Gair Rhydd’s man of the match: Paddy McNair (Northern Ireland)
Match attendance: 21,855