Late Simon Church penalty saves draw for Wales against Northern Ireland

Substitute Simon Church scored an 89th-minute penalty as Wales snatched a 1-1 friendly draw with British rivals Northern Ireland in a pre-Euro 2016 sparring contest in Cardiff on Thursday.

Craig Cathcart put the visitors ahead on the hour at the Cardiff City Stadium, but Church, who is on loan at Aberdeen from Milton Keynes Dons, won and scored a late spot-kick to stretch his side’s unbeaten series of matches against Northern Ireland to eight games.

It meant that Chris Coleman’s Wales, whose lengthy list of absentees included Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, narrowly avoided a second consecutive home defeat after November’s 3-2 loss to the Netherlands.

Wales, gearing up for a first major tournament appearance since the 1958 World Cup, tackle Ukraine in Kiev on Tuesday, while Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland, who have not graced the global stage in 30 years, host Slovenia on Monday.

With a first ever European Championship appearance looming for both countries, the two managers used the occasion to experiment.

Wales jettisoned the back three that they had used throughout Euro 2016 qualifying to test out a back four, while Northern Ireland did the exact opposite.

On a pitch greased by steady rainfall, Wales moved the ball around smoothly and created the first half’s best chances.

Lone striker Sam Vokes twice headed wide, while David Cotterill saw a free-kick parried by visiting goalkeeper Michael McGovern and curled a shot over the bar from the left.

Manchester United youngster Paddy McNair, operating in an unfamiliar midfield holding role, and debutant Conor Washington had Northern Ireland’s only efforts of note, both miscuing from long range.

Liverpool goalkeeper Danny Ward made his Wales debut as a halftime substitute for Wayne Hennessey and was quickly involved, batting away a shot from Kyle Lafferty.

But on the hour the 22-year-old was picking the ball out of his net after Wales failed to clear a short corner and Steven Davis’s touch dropped to Cathcart, who swivelled and found the net with a low drive from 15 yards.

It was only Northern Ireland’s second goal in 18 friendly matches away from home, and it almost proved decisive.

Coleman turned to Church with 14 minutes remaining and with just a minute to play he won a penalty after being felled by a needless sliding challenge from visiting centre-back Gareth McAuley.

The 27-year-old took the spot-kick himself and made no mistake, confidently steering the ball inside the left-hand post.


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