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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 January 2005, 17:01 GMT
NI enjoy a better year
By Lyle Jackson

David Healy hit a superb volley against Austria
David Healy scored a brilliant volley against Austria
Having started 2004 seeking a new manager and a long-awaited goal, Northern Ireland finished the year in buoyant mood.

Lawrie Sanchez was chosen as Sammy McIlroy's successor in January and he immediately set three targets.

Firstly, a goal, something Northern Ireland failed to score in 2003.

Secondly, a win, something the boys in green had not done since David Healy's decisive penalty in Malta back in October 2001.

The third Sanchez objective was to improve Northern Ireland's Fifa ranking which, when he took over was 122nd, nestling between Benin and Mauritius.

Happily, for the province's long-suffering fans, all three have been achieved.

Qualifying from a tough World Cup Group Six might be beyond them, but at long last there is something to get excited about.

Not that things started well for Sanchez as Norway came to Belfast for his first game in charge.

Michael Hughes and Robbie Savage were sent-off
Michael Hughes clashed with Robbie Savage in Cardiff

On a wet Wednesday night in February, Northern Ireland found themselves 3-0 down at half-time.

But at least David Healy headed a second half goal, Northern Ireland's first for 14 months, as Norway won 4-1.

Target number two was achieved in March when Sanchez's side won away to Estonia in a friendly, Healy again doing the honours in a 1-0 success.

A 1-1 draw away to Serbia and Montenegro in April was followed by a summer tour to the Caribbean.

Northern Ireland remained unbeaten with two wins and a draw and the trip witnessed Healy breaking the province's scoring record.

After an August 0-0 draw in Switzerland, Northern Ireland kicked-off their World Cup campaign at home to Poland.

After seven friendlies, this was Sanchez's first competitive test but it started disastrously as Northern Ireland conceded an early goal and crashed 3-0 in front of a deflated full house.

Next up was Wales away and Northern Ireland, really needing to take something from the game, led 2-0.

But they had two players sent-off - Michael Hughes correctly for a bad tackle on Robbie Savage and Healy incredibly for the manner of his goal celebration.

And, in the end, they were hanging on for a 2-2 draw in a Millennium Stadium thriller.

There were few thrills in the 0-0 draw away to Azerbaijan, but Northern Ireland's last match of the calendar year was another rollercoaster.

Northern Ireland came from behind to lead 2-1 against Austria with Healy scoring one of the best goals Windsor Park had ever witnessed. But defensive frailties found them wanting again and going into stoppage-time they were 3-2 down.

Stuart Elliott popped up to score his first international goal at Windsor and his timing was impeccable.

Defeat would have left Northern Ireland ending the year on a low but, instead, they look forward with confidence.

Sanchez's side, now 107th in the Fifa standings, play Canada in a home friendly in February before the big one against England at Old Trafford in March.


SEE ALSO
Elliott targets NI starting role
23 Dec 04 |  Internationals
Sanchez full of surprises
21 Jan 04 |  Northern Ireland



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