Hoping to break play-off hoodoo
In more than 30 years writing about the Republic of Ireland team, Vincent Hogan has covered four of our last five play-off ties for qualification to the finals of a major football tournament.
The exception was Tehran, where Mick McCarthy’s side secured a place at the 2002 World Cup finals.
He did not make that trip, but he was in Liverpool (’95), Brussels (’97), Bursa (’99) and Paris (’09) on the nights Irish hearts were broken. As Giovanni Trapattoni and his team now head for Tallinn, Hogan retraces those turbulent nights on foreign fields.
The good news? He isn't travelling to Estonia for Friday’s game. The bad? He will be working four days later at the second leg...
December 13, 1995
REP OF IRELAND 0
Ireland - A Kelly, G Kelly, Irwin, Babb, McGrath, Phelan, Townsend, Kenna, Cascarino, Aldridge, Sheridan. Subs: McAteer for Townsend, Kernaghan for Aldridge.
Holland - Van der Sar, Reiziger, Blind, Bogarde, R de Boer, Seedorf, Bergkamp, Davids, Overmars, Kluivert, Helder.
Ireland's battered, diminished old team found a base in the tiny Welsh border hamlet of Ewloe. The regal Dutch took over a hotel across the road from Haydock racecourse.
Throughout the build-up, we invoked the ghosts of Gelsenkirchen in '88 (Wim Kieft's 'flukey' goal) and the Citrus Bowl, Orlando in '94 (Packie's howler), settling on a consensus that justice surely decreed this would be our time.
Did we believe? Hardly. The team had just been trimmed 3-0 by Portugal in Lisbon, on a night when Jack -- having picked Niall Quinn and John Aldridge in his team -- seemed to deploy a fatalistic 4-6-0 formation.
There had also been the ruinous draw in Vaduz (against Liechtenstein), two defeats to an unexceptional Austrian team and, of course, the watershed 'Harry Ramsden Challenge'.
On the Monday, some of us took up clandestine vantage points above garages and public houses to watch a 'behind closed doors' practice game between our heroes and a Wrexham selection at The Racecourse Ground. The outcome? Steve Staunton was out with a hamstring pull.
Ominously, in his press conferences, Jack sounded like a man subconsciously attracted to the heartless bingo of penalties. He looked old and careworn. Asked if the team's confidence was low, he assured us "they laugh a lot, they enjoy training, they eat up". And we imagined them whinnying happily from their stables.
His team selection wasn't a matter of militaristic planning either. Terry Phelan revealed how Jack had been taking a walk down a street in Chester that Monday when he seemed surprised to come upon the little Mancunian.
"I'd forgotten about you, that you were in the squad," gasped Charlton.
"How would you feel about playing left side of midfield?"
Phelan's job would be to track the dangerous winger, Marc Overmars. "It'll be like a wild dog after raw meat!" grinned Terry, telling us that he was tired of hearing all "the hype" about Ajax and their systems.
Eight of the Dutch starting line-up would be players from the Amsterdam club, including the teenage striker, Patrick Kluivert. Ireland, without Roy Keane, Quinn and Staunton, would go to war with a patchwork side that included four full-backs.
Surreally, on the Tuesday night, we watched the draw for World Cup qualification pitch Ireland into a group with Romania, Lithuania, Iceland, Macedonia and Liechtenstein.
Asked about the top seeds, Jack responded "Their team has got a bit old, a little bit like us." Gulp.
Nine-and-a-half years in the job, he was, palpably, winding down. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, he played table-football in the team hotel with some of the journalists now calling for his head.
And Holland -- effectively just playing three at the back -- would win almost as they pleased, Kluivert scoring twice. Andy Townsend likened the experience to a boxer getting hit constantly who "doesn't get a breather".
Jack carped: "At vital times, there was no understanding among our players!" When Sean Ryan of the Sunday Independent wondered at the post-game press conference if, perhaps, that might reflect a failure of management, Jack stormed out.
He had declared that his future would be decided by what the people had to say. It wasn't. By the end of the game at Anfield, Ireland had seven defenders on the field.
Things looked slapstick.
The FAI thanked him for his time. It was over.
November 17, 1999
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND 0
Ireland - Kiely, Carr, Cunningham, Breen, Irwin, Delap, Roy Keane, Kinsella, Kilbane, Connolly, Quinn. Subs: Kenna for Carr, Duff for Connolly, Cascarino for Kenna.
Turkey - Recber, Beserler, Temizkanoglu, Hatutcu, Ozalan, Erdem, Ercan, Buruk, Yalcin, Korkut, Sukur. Subs: Akyel for Korkut, Davala for Erdem.
Before we even flew to the earthquake zone, there were promises of hell and damnation.
An angry throng of 3,000 people had, reputedly, marched through the streets of Bursa in protest at the FAI's treatment of their national football team.
The Turks were forced to train on a council camogie pitch in Portmarnock because all other northside Dublin alternatives -- Dalymount, Tolka, Whitehall -- had been ruled out of commission. The FAI said their fax machine had all but caught fire from over-use as they encouraged the Turks to base themselves south of the Liffey. That encouragement had been ignored.
The week of mischief and malevolence would finally begin to make sense when Turkish coach Mustaf Denizli complained at his post-game conference of "up to 15,000 Irish supporters" gathering on Portmarnock strand the night before to prevent his team sleeping. Perhaps they had been stragglers from Tamangos.
By the end of the game, Lee Carsley's slip for a Turkish penalty had ensured that celebrations for Robbie Keane's lead goal lasted just three minutes. Worse, Robbie then got a yellow card, so he was suspended for the second leg.
Ireland's training facilities in Bursa would be described by a member of the FAI's security team "flea-ridden, smelly and Third World". From a warm-up on the scutch grass of Sahasi Velodrome, the team crossed a hillside to the amateur ground of Merinos FC.
Two policeman sat at the gate in a Fiat, picking through the pages of adult magazines.
Yet, the people were warm and the albeit primitive dressing-rooms at Sahasi had fresh bars of soap in every sink and wooden flip-flops left at every shower cubicle. Someone was making an effort. The Ataturk would be full three hours before kick-off and the Irish media expressed themselves keen to get there early. Turkish journalists had been unimpressed by the seating arrangements at Lansdowne and promised vengeance.
And so simple practicalities like power points and favourably positioned chairs would be denied us, the draw passing in a blur of bubble-eyed recrimination. Had Ireland won, local security officials vowed to impose a three-hour curfew on any visitors leaving the stadium. This would have meant missing our ferry and the last flight out of Istanbul.
As it happened, the Turks were happy to throw open the gates early. Their party had begun. Back at Istanbul airport, Tony Cascarino called an impromptu press conference to announce his retirement from international football after 14 years. His bottom lip was swollen and bloodied.
Cas admitted shoving a Turkish player into an advertising hoarding at the final whistle and, essentially, triggering a mini riot. Among those who landed punches and kicks on his body had been a Turkish defender.
"Caught me with an absolute pearler," grinned Cas admiringly.
November 15, 1997
REP OF IRELAND 1
Ireland - Given, Kenna, Cunningham, Harte, Staunton, G Kelly, Carsley, McLoughlin, Townsend, Kennedy, Cascarino. Subs: Houghton for McLoughlin, Connolly for Kennedy, D Kelly for Townsend.
Belgium - De Wilde, De Flandre, Verstraeten, De Broek, Vidovic, Van der Elst, Claessens, Oliveira, Boffin, Nilis, Gerheyen. Subs: Barkelmans for Vidovic, Leonard for Claessens, Goosens for Nilis.
The country was fixated with the presidency (Mary McAleese about to get the keys of the Aras) and political cronyism (the Dunnes Payments Tribunal in full flow). Plus ca change?
Yet, drawing Belgium had been deemed a virtual cause for national celebration, with Ireland five places above them in the FIFA rankings. They were bidding for their fifth World Cup finals place in a row but, when we looked at them, we saw only opportunity. You see, 16 years earlier, Jan Ceulemans had scandalously picked Irish pockets in the old Heysel.
The Belgians played on our hubris, their eccentric coach George Leekens turning every press conference into a stand-up routine. "You must take strength from your good points," he had said in Dublin. "It is the same in life. I am ugly, I know. But I have good qualities!"
Mick McCarthy responded by assuring us he felt so relaxed, he could "do a limbo under the table here, with a top-hat on."
We were still slapping our sides when Denis Irwin's sublime seventh-minute free-kick sent Lansdowne into raptures. But, then, the sound of a rather large penny dropping. The Belgians, bigger and technically more accomplished, began bossing the play. Bullying the team. Luc Nilis equalised. The 1-1 draw would feel like an escape.
In Brussels, McCarthy spiced up training at the Kraainem complex by picking an over-30s team (himself included) to play against the rest. The elder lemons lost 6-0, his players handing him the "I had a Macedonia" yellow jersey. Jeff Kenna caught the mood. "I don't mean this the way it sounds," he said. "But to have to go on holiday with my missus next June would be an absolute disaster!"
At his first conference, McCarthy was asked how he was now coping with the pressure. "I guess the transcendental meditation and yoga I've been practising up in my room most hours of the day is helping," he smiled.
Game-day dawned wet and never brightened. The old Heysel, now re-invented as Stade Roi Baudoin after the horrors of '85, was a bland, red-bricked basin, patrolled by riot police with Alsatians. Luis Oliveira caught Kenny Cunningham for pace to give Belgium an early lead but, when substitute Ray Houghton equalised 12 minutes after the resumption, Irish decibels soared.
Then a throw-in, wrongly awarded to the Belgians, prefaced a decisive Nilis goal. And soon, with virtually his only act of the evening (an intemperate swing of the boot) substitute David Connolly was red-carded. "We are the champions," suddenly blared across the sodden night, Shay Given (pictured left) gulping back the tears.
Back at the Forte Posthouse Airport Hotel, McCarthy -- Guinness in hand -- convened a press conference. It was 3.21am.
Houghton materialised at the manager's shoulder. "I back him 110pc," he said. "Thanks pal," said Mick. "But I was good for half an hour wasn't I?" added Houghton to guffaws of laughter.
McCarthy drew the punchline like a sword from a pouch. "Hey Razor, thank f*****g hell there wasn't extra-time though!"
November 18, 2009
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND 1
Ireland - Given, O'Shea, Dunne, St Ledger, Kilbane, Lawrence, Whelan, Andrews, Duff, Doyle, Keane. Subs: McShane for O'Shea, Gibson for Whelan, McGeady for Lawrence.
France - Lloris, Sagna, Gallas, Escude, Evra, Lassana Diarra, Alou Diarra, Anelka, Gourcuff, Henry, Gignac. Subs: Squillaci for Escude, Govou for Gignac, Malouda for Gourcuff.
Like a mad professor, Raymond Domenech sat on a high stool in the pavilion of Clairefontaine's wonderful football institute and blinked at the scepticism around him.
Nicolas Anelka's deflected goal in Croke Park had surely handed the French their boarding-tickets for South Africa. The local media seemed to agree with a view that the following night's business in Paris would be simple book-keeping. Yet, it did not stop them bristling with disdain for their guest.
Many smirked openly at Domenech's answers to their questions. "The Republic of the player is back," gushed one journalist, likening the French story to that of '06 when Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele had all come out of retirement to usurp control of the dressing-room.
He was, we now know, guilty of hopeless optimism. Giovanni Trapattoni's team had been angered by something Lassana Diarra uttered to Ketih Andrews at the final whistle in Dublin. "Insulting the Irish nation" was how Trap described it. Domenech dismissed it as the press coming out with "bulls**t".
Maybe 27 hours later, perhaps the greatest Irish performance of modern times would be short-changed by the most famous handball incident since Maradona picked English pockets in '86. High up in the stands, we were initially confused.
Visiting journalists don't get the benefit of TV monitors in Stade de France and only the consternation of Ireland's players told us that Gallas' extra-time equaliser might have a fraudulent dimension. A Sunday journalist was dispatched downstairs to a television in the media work-room and came back shaking his head. Oh Thierry, how could you?
The next days had a vaudeville feel. At Charles de Gaulle, Irish supporters stared at the 'l'Equipe' headline, 'La Main De Dieu' like crime victims brandishing evidence. As we waited to board our flight (six hours late), Brian Cowen had supposedly suspended all other business to appeal personally to Nicolas Sarkozy for a replay.
And, just after FIFA had rejected that as a possibilty, Henry himself stepped heroically forward to declare a replay "the fairest solution". Merci Thierry! In time, our consternation would peter into nothing. Sepp Blatter even began poking fun.
Insult heaped upon injury, like nothing we had ever known.