All Whites coach Ricki Herbert rates New Zealand’s unimaginable 2-2 draw in Wales on a par with last year’s historic victory over Georgia.
With seven frontliners unavailable, players out of position and season and a centreback pairing with little more than 10 minutes of international experience between them, New Zealand were given little chance entering Sunday’s Racecourse Ground friendly.
But out-of-work striker Shane Smeltz ignored the reputations of the premiership pin-up boys around him to deliver New Zealand Football a timely shot of creditability with two first half goals in Wrexham.
Smeltz’s second and third international goals cancelled out a brace from Wales’ Liverpool livewire Craig Bellamy and were just reward for a depleted All Whites squad that punched well above its weight.Had it not been for the inside of Wayne Hennessey’s near-post 18 minutes from time, Smeltz might have had a hat-trick and an unthinkable winner.
Suddenly, thankfully, the pain of March’s big losses in Costa Rica and Venezuela and the late decision to withdraw from the June 7 friendly with Ukraine had dulled.
“To get our first international win on European soil against Georgia last May was pretty special but this, given the composition of our team, is fantastic…I’m sure this wasn’t on the script for them [Wales],” an ecstatic Herbert said afterwards.
“When people switch on the TV back home they see [Manchester United’s Ryan] Giggs and Bellamy, they’re household names. So for us to get this result should generate a lot of enthusiasm and creditability for where we’re heading.”
Herbert’s excited assistant, Brian Turner, hoped the nature of New Zealand’s performance was taken into account when the result was dissected at home.
“This wasn’t backs to the wall stuff, it was toe to toe with a very good side and our players got more and more confident as the game went on...people need to know that,” said Turner, New Zealand’s most capped player with 104 international appearances.
Smeltz was hauled off to explain New Zealand’s upset and his two-goal herocis to Sky Television and BBC Radio afterwards.
Just down the crowded corridor from the glare of a stunned British press corp, Herbert’s players sat quietly reflecting on a job well done and no one was more proud than second cap centrebacks Andy Boyens and Ben Sigmund.
Twice Boyens denied Bellamy with despairing dives with an opening net begging while Sigmund matched his defensive partner in the air and with a number of well-timed challenges.
“There’s not too many better players than Bellamy and [Norwich City’s] Robbie Earnshaw in terms of pace and technical ability and yeah, the did cause us problems,” Herbert said.
“But you look at those players and the inexperience of Andy and Ben and you don’t expect this outcome. I thought they were absolutely outstanding, the pair of them.
“They’ve really digested everything that’s been put in front of them in the last three days [of training] and they’ve put into practice everything the possibly could.”
Wellington Phoenix goalkeeper Mark Paston was New Zealand’s other hero, rushing out to smoother Earnshaw’s first half shot from point-blank range before turning away a rasping Joe Ledley (Cardiff City) drive eight minutes into the second half.
“It would be very difficult to find someone I wasn’t pleased with tonight,” Herbert said.
“The real ingredient was a totally collective approach. We were very clear from a physiological point of view after the tour of the Americas that things needed to change and all the boys stuck their hand up tonight and proved a point.
“We’re about three or four weeks away from naming our World Cup squad and there are a few nice headaches for us now.”
Smeltz gave New Zealand a dream start after just 1min 47s when he coolly tucked home a shot from just outside the six yard box following a crafty buildup from Jeremy Christie and Duncan Oughton.
Bellamy put Wales back on level terms after 18 minutes when he side-footed into an empty net after Giggs had broken free down the right.
Mark paston makes a crucial saveBut fears that Wales were warming to their Euro 2008 warm-up task evaporated when Smeltz nodded home his second following a great ball in from Tim Brown in the 24th minute.
New Zealand looked set to head to halftime with a 2-1 advantage but Bellamy, always a danger with his ability to drop defenders with a dip of a shoulder, squeezed a drive between Paston and the All Whites stoppers’ near post in the 38th minute after the All Whites’ cover defence failed to close Bellamy down.
Wales changed to a 3-5-2 formation after the interval had New Zealand chasing shadows for periods. But the world No 75 were unable to find deliver a decisive blow thanks to the late interventions of Boyens and Paston.
May 26, 2007
Wales 2 (Craig Bellamy 18, 38) New Zealand 2 (Shane Smeltz 2, 24). Halftime: 2-2
Referee: Tommy Skjerven (Norway).
Cautions: Andy Boyens 15, Chris Gunter 23.
New Zealand: Mark Paston, James Pritchett, Andy Boyens, Ben Sigmund, Tony Lochhead, Jeremy Christie (Andy Barron 59), Duncan Oughton, Tim Brown (captain), Leo Bertos (Jeff Campbell 61), Chris James, Shane Smeltz.
Wales: Danny Coyne (Unattached/Wayne Hennessey [Wolverhampton Wanderers] 46), Chris Gunter (Cardiff City/Steve Evans [Wrexham] 46), Sam Ricketts (Hull City), Danny Gabbidon (West Ham United), James Collins (West Ham United), Carl Robinson (Toronto), Carl Fletcher (Crystal Palace/Joe Ledley [Cardiff City] 46) Simon Davies (Fulham/Andrew Crofts [Gillingham] 77), Ryan Giggs (Manchester United/Chris Llewelyn [Wrexham] 77), Robert Earnshaw (Norwich City/Daniel Nardiello [Barnsley] 65), Craig Bellamy (Liverpool).