Fans take centre stage for Fifa protest in low key friendly
OPPOSITION to Sepp Blatter's Fifa presidency and the 2022 World Cup reared its head in the unlikely venue of Gresty Road as Northern Ireland fans used their side's friendly with Qatar to make a stand.
The scene in Crewe might have lacked the drama of dawn raids in Zurich, but the Green and White Army's repeated chants against Blatter and the Gulf state's status as tournament hosts suggested the football family has not yet moved on from the controversy.
The game itself did little to excite, a low-key 1-1 draw featuring a maiden international goal for Stuart Dallas and a fine equaliser from Qatari substitute Karim Boudiaf.
As a result, Northern Ireland's embarrassing run in friendlies continued - they last won a non-competitive match against Georgia in 2008 and Michael O'Neill is now without success in 10 attempts. That will hardly be a major concern for him, with a handful of key men rested from the fixture and qualification for Euro 2016 still looking good.
Instead, this game is likely to be remembered predominantly for the songs from the one populated stand - some funny, some profane, all in opposition to Blatter's continued employment and Qatar's 2022 bid. Blatter was called on to do a variety of biologically unlikely acts, while the Qatari side were asked "how much did you pay for the FIFA World Cup?"
On the field, the opening exchanges took place at near walking pace, with Dallas the first man to break a sweat when intercepting Abdelaziz Hatem's loose pass in the eighth minute. The Brentford winger charged towards goal, but his shot bobbled harmlessly wide.
Northern Ireland should have scored on the quarter-hour when Dallas' hanging cross was fumbled by Amine Lecomite, but although Niall McGinn was quickly on to the second ball his shot was blocked by a defender.
The rest of the half appeared to be little more than an elaborate training exercise to put Manchester United youngster Paddy McNair through his paces in a deep lying midfield role. He was the first half's standout player by a clear margin, demanding the ball in his deep lying role and alternating between long-range passes and driving runs through the middle.
Although used as a centre-half by United, he has also played further forward in youth football and looked entirely at ease in possession. At one stage, he sauntered through a sparsely populated Qatar midfield and made almost 40 yards before laying off to Will Grigg, who could not fashion a shooting chance.
Oliver Norwood's set-pieces appeared the best chance of a breakthrough, with the Reading man's free-kick drawing an unconvincing save from Lecomte before a flighted delivery for Grigg was glanced just wide.
Having been shut out for 45 minutes, it took just 52 seconds of the second half for Northern Ireland to break the deadlock. A brisk attack saw McGinn cross from the right, allowing Grigg to flick the ball towards the back post, where Dallas steadied himself and rifled home from close range.
The Fifa chants increased in volume and frequency once the lead had been taken, and it took the introduction of Jonny Evans and Jamie Ward from the bench to attract eyes back to the pitch.
Ward almost set up a second goal shortly after his arrival, picked out by Dallas after a sharp breakaway and drilling low across the six-yard box. Norwood was ready to tap home, but Mohamed Musa slid bravely and scooped the ball over his own bar from point-blank range.
The failure to add to their tally eventually cost Northern Ireland victory, keeping the seven-year friendly hoodoo firmly in place.
Qatar substitute Karim Boudiaf was the man to make them suffer, catching Roy Carroll cold with a snap shot from 25 yards that sailed into the top corner.
Liam Boyce and Paddy McCourt were summoned from the bench to change matters but neither they, nor late addition Josh Magennis, could get into the game.