England rode their luck against a plucky Northern Ireland side to hold on for a draw as once again a lack of punch up front hampered Don Revie’s team.
On a bright sunny day in Belfast, England were at times given a chasing by the Irish but thanks to a combination of poor finishing and good goalkeeping maintained the remarkable defensive record they had established under Revie, keeping a clean sheet for the 6th time and still not having conceded a goal.
That defensive stability was necessary though given the paucity of opportunities being created in the forward areas. No amount of tinkering had allowed Revie to produce a partnership that worked, and it was this lack of attacking flair that was frustrating not only the manager but also the fans.
England were making strides politically though. After the delayed trip to Cyprus the previous week, England were now in Belfast for the first time in four years, with the troubles having subsided enough to make it safe to travel. As had proved to be Revie’s wont, there was another debutant in the starting line up as Ipswich Town’s Colin Viljoen, came into the midfield, with Mick Channon dropping out and Kevin Keegan pushing forward to partner Malcolm Macdonald. Dennis Tueart made his first start in place of Dave Thomas.
Both BBC & ITV showed highlights of the game, David Coleman commentating for the Beeb in a Match of the Day Special with Hugh Johns on duty for ITV, who delayed their coverage until the following afternoon.
It was England who had the first opportunity, a corner in from the left hand side flicked on by Keegan against the crossbar. Dave Watson arrived at the back post and his shot was blocked by Pat Jennings in the Northern Ireland goal.
Emlyn Hughes was back in favour with Revie and was back in at left back in place of Kevin Beattie. He set off on one of his trademark loping runs before playing the ball across field to the skipper, Alan Ball. He hit a first time shot which Jennings got down well to save.
It was the Irish though that then took hold of the game. England were scrappy in defence, failing to clear the ball and allowing Derek Spence the opportunity to shoot, the Bury striker dragging his effort across the face of goal.
The second half was all about Northern Ireland. Sammy McIlroy wasted a golden opportunity when he failed to control the ball when free in the area before Spence went close again with a floating header just wide with Clemence scrambling back helplessly.
Bar a Dennis Tueart half chance, England showed nothing in the second half and were grateful for more poor finishing by Spence when he headed straight at Clemence with Northern Ireland’s last chance.
The only positives to take from the game for England were the point, which, coupled with Scotlands draw with Wales, left all four teams level after the first game of the Championship, and the fact that they had still not conceded a goal under Don Revie. However the manager was starting to feel the heat, and would need a positive result in the midweek clash against Wales.