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Northern Ireland manager Sammy McIlroy
"I knew it was going to be tough"
 real 14k

Saturday, 2 September, 2000, 16:53 GMT 17:53 UK
Gray sky high for NI
Kevin Horlock (l), Phil Gray (c) and David Healy (r)
Phil Gray (centre) is congratulated on his goal.
Northern Ireland 1-0 Malta
Kick-off 3.00pm, Windsor Park, Belfast
Att: 8,227

The oldest player in the Northern Ireland squad got the crucial goal to give Sammy McIlroy a winning start in his first competitive game as an international manager.

Burnley striker Phil Gray, 32 next month, grabbed the winner against minnows Malta just as the doubts were beginning to creep in.

Gray, playing his first international game for almost two years, struck after 70 minutes.

It was Northern Ireland's first win in a World Cup game since they beat Albania in December 1996.

Kevin Horlock
Kevin Horlock missed two first-half chances

"I was delighted to get back in to the squad. I always felt I could contribute something," said Gray.

"The lads kept going, even though chances were missed.

"It only takes a second to score a goal, and I'm thrilled to have got it."

Northern Ireland had to survive some scary moments in a tense first half.

Best chance

The Maltese, who have finished bottom of every group they have been in, missed the best chance of the opening half.

George Mallia had an open goal but somehow shot against a post from just a few yards out.

George Mallia
Malta's George Mallia fluffed open goal opportunity

Mallia fluffed another glorious opportunity soon afterwards when a blunder from NI defender Ian Nolan let him in. But Mallia failed again with the goal at his mercy.

Stuart Elliott, earning his old club Glentoran a 20,000 transfer bonus by making his international debut, almost had a dream start in the green shirt.

When Malta keeper Ernest Barry dropped a Kevin Horlock corner, Motherwell man Elliott hooked the ball goalwards only to see Luke Dimech head off the line.

Elliott had another fine opening just before the break but his left-foot shot was just inches wide.

Gray's entrance

It was Elliott who came off when Gray made his entrance as a 62nd minute sub and eight minutes later the veteran fired Northern Ireland into the lead.

Jim Magilton sent a teasing cross into the box, Horlock pulled the ball back and Gray simply could not miss from close-range.

Gerry Taggart thought he had headed a second but was denied by another goal-line clearance.

Sammy McIlroy
Sammy McIlroy sees his side triumph

Then Horlock saw a lob come off the top of the bar, but McIlroy's men had done enough to take the three precious points, and record their first competitive victory since a 1-0 win over Finland in a Euro qualifier 23 months and seven matches ago.

"The lads were magnificent," said a delighted manager.

"We knew we had to be patient. The boys kept the ball and did everything we asked of them."

The other Group Three games saw the Czech Republic win 1-0 in Bulgaria while Denmark defeated Iceland 2-1 in Reykjavik.

Northern Ireland's next Group Three qualifier is against Denmark on October 7, again in Belfast.

Northern Ireland: Carroll, A. Hughes, Murdock, Taggart, Nolan, Elliott (Sub Gray 61), Horlock, Magilton, Lomas, Johnson, Healy. Malta: Barry, Utheumo, Said, Debono, Dimech, Chetcuti, Carabott, Sylla (Sub Brincat 45), Camilleri (Sub Veseelji 78), Busuttil, Mallia (Sub Turner 57). Ref: T Bezubiok (Russia).

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See also:

02 Sep 00 |  Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland v Malta: Clockwatch
01 Sep 00 |  Northern Ireland
Hughes believes NI can qualify
31 Aug 00 |  Northern Ireland
Whitley called up for NI squad
31 Aug 00 |  Northern Ireland
McIlroy aiming to match Republic
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