Saturday 19 August 2017

The ghosts of qualifiers past

Irish dreams have twice been demolished in Macedonia -- and the bitter memories are as raw and painful as ever, writes Liam Kelly

Jason McAteer leaves the pitch after his red card in the World Cup qualifier in Skopje. Photo: Sportsfile
Jason McAteer leaves the pitch after his red card in the World Cup qualifier in Skopje. Photo: Sportsfile
Roy Keane battles for possession with Macedonian Sainovski Dzevdet. Photo: Sportsfile
Gary Breen reacts at the final whistle of their Euro 2000 qualifier in 1999 when the home side managed an injury time equaliser to draw 1-1. Photo: Sportsfile
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

An Irish blessing: 'May you never have a Macedonia.'

An Irish curse: 'May you have a Macedonia.'

Well, in our soccer history, the Irish team has twice 'had a Macedonia' and with our old friends due in Dublin later this week, inevitably the dreaded 'M' word revisits the consciousness.

Mind you, Ireland haven't had a problem with the Macedonian soccer team in Dublin, which bodes well for Trap's men on Saturday.

But Skopje, the capital city of the former Yugoslav Federation state, has proven an entirely different proposition.

April 2, 1997, and October 9, 1999, are the dates which those involved really want to erase from their memories. On each occasion, the Irish side was challenging for qualification: for World Cup 98 in the former instance, and for Euro 2000 in the latter.

Crucial results in Skopje -- one defeat and one draw -- blunted the edge of the Irish momentum towards those tournament finals. Both times Mick McCarthy's team entered play-offs, and both times they failed to qualify.

Losing is one thing; self-destruction is another. And that was the real hurt for the manager and players who have Skopje '97 and '99 on their CVs.

Postcards from the edge - Macedonia 1

Q: Who were the Macedonians anyway?

A: They were one of the states that claimed their independence from the bloodfest that was the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Football-wise, FYR Macedonia joined UEFA and FIFA in 1994. They competed for the Euro 96 finals but did not qualify; it was a similar story for World Cup 98.

Macedonia came to Dublin on October 9, 1996, and were beaten 3-0, courtesy of two goals by Tony Cascarino and one from Jason McAteer.

April 2, 1997

McCarthy sent out the following team to play in a 3-5-2 formation, wearing unfamiliar orange jersies: Alan Kelly; Denis Irwin, Gary Breen, Steve Staunton; McAteer, Andy Townsend, Roy Keane, Alan McLoughlin, Terry Phelan; Jon Goodman, Cascarino.

Plenty of experience there, and the Irish got a great start with a ninth-minute McLoughlin goal -- Keane cross, Cascarino knock-down, diving header by McLoughlin. So far, so good.

And yet, for the next 30 minutes or so, the energy and drive went out of the Irish side. Misplaced passes, snappy arguments between players, long balls launched forward when the 3-5-2 was supposed to allow for constructive, patient passing movements -- what was happening?

McCarthy couldn't understand it. "We lost our shape and our passion and I can't explain why it happened. From being in control, we took our foot off the pedal," he said.

Goalkeeper Kelly actually had a fairly easy night, apart from picking the ball out of the net three times, twice from penalties.

"I didn't have a problem with the system. If anything, for a goalkeeper, it gives you the insurance of a sweeper," he said. "But you can't just lump the ball forward. You've got to play it out of defence.

"And I seem to remember Roy (Keane) playing quite deep that day. He came and got the ball off me a lot so that meant sometimes, we effectively had six people out of the game.

"We played very deep as a team and let the Macedonians come on to us. I thought that was our downfall."

The first hammer blow came when the Italian referee gave a 29th-minute penalty for a shot by Gosev which hit McAteer's arm. The latter's arms were high but he claimed there was no intent.

The ref wasn't interested. Stojkovski smashed home the equaliser via the crossbar from the penalty spot.

Phelan was getting a torrid time down the left wing from Gosev, who, in the 44th minute, fired in another shot at the Irish goal.

Phelan slid across, attempting to make a block, but the ball, which was going to hit his face, struck his arms as he tried to protect himself.

Even the Macedonians didn't scream for a penalty. Phelan said: "I was just trying to protect myself. My arms were close to my chest."

Again, the ref ignored the protests and Stojkovski scored again from the spot, sending Kelly the wrong way.

Just after half-time, McCarthy replaced Cascarino with Keith O'Neill, who had not fully recovered from an ankle ligament injury.

O'Neill taking a place on the bench was a blow to Stephen Geoghegan of Shelbourne, who had been called into the squad for the trip.

Geoghegan later recalled: "Damien Richardson, who was manager of Shels, suggested I had a good chance of getting on the bench, and I had my own hopes built up."

An hour before kick-off, O'Neill declared himself fit. Geoghegan would have no role to play.

"I was shattered when Mick told me I wouldn't be involved. Keith O'Neill said he was fit to play when he wasn't. It kind of put a damper on things for me," said Geoghegan.

O'Neill lasted just over 30 minutes. "The ankle wasn't stable but it was just a gamble that we took. Within 10 minutes of coming on, I got whacked in the very place it was sore," he said.

Ian Harte replaced Phelan in the 56th minute. Murphy's Law, or should that be Macedonian Law, decreed that just four minutes would elapse before Harte slipped as he was about to control the ball on the edge of the area.

"Go raibh mile maith agat," or whatever 'thanks, dude' is in Macedonian, said Georgi Hristov, who clipped the ball into the net for goal number three.

David Kelly came on for O'Neill after 76 minutes. Just a couple of minutes later, Kelly scored Ireland's second goal, but it was too little, too late.

Just to round off a perfect evening, McAteer lunged with foot dangerously high on Macedonia's Sakiri in kung-fu style in the last minute. That led to a head-to-head confrontation with Stojkovski.

McAteer said the Macedonian stood on his toe, and his own knee lifted as he attempted to get clear. That led to a red card.

McCarthy, on reviewing the evidence, was unequivocal afterwards: "Jason deserved to be sent off.

"He wasn't sent off for the first tackle -- he lifted his knee into the groin of their No 3, and that can't be justified."

As for the aftermath, the manager summed it up succinctly: "What can I say? Criminal, dreadful, suicidal.

"We had a crazy half-hour where we couldn't even pass the ball to each other. Some of what we did was dreadful."

Consequences: (1) No more orange shirts for the Irish. (2) Mick dropped the 3-5-2 formation. (3) Displaying gallows humour, subsequent Irish squads had a yellow jersey bearing the words 'I had a Macedonia' for the player voted as the worst performer in training sessions.

Postcards from the edge - Macedonia 2

On June 9, 1999, Niall Quinn got the winning goal at Lansdowne Road against Macedonia in a Euro 2000 qualifier.

A good day all round, as Quinn was 25/1 to score the only goal of the game and his horse The Bomber Liston won the Roma Handicap at Leopardstown at 11/2.

And after that Lansdowne Road result, the lads retired the infamous 'I had a Macedonia' training jersey. Little did they know... for Saturday, October 9, 1999 was to bring a draw that was as bad as any defeat.

A month prior to the game, the Irish had led until the dying seconds of injury-time against Croatia, only for Davor Suker to plunder a late goal and deny them a vital win.

Now, they were in Skopje seeking the victory that would put them through to the Euro 2000 finals.

The outcome depended to an extent on the result of Croatia v Yugoslavia, but McCarthy's men had to win their own game before anyone else could help them. The team was: Alan Kelly; Denis Irwin, Gary Breen, Kenny Cunningham, Steve Staunton; Gary Kelly, Mark Kinsella, Alan McLoughlin, Mark Kennedy; Niall Quinn, Robbie Keane.

The atmosphere around the ground was sulphurous. Macedonia trotted out to occupy the same half of the pitch in the warm-up as the Irish; the crowd jeered the Irish national anthem; McCarthy was singled out for insulting chants and gestures.

Alex Ferguson might observe: "I've seen worse at a Scottish wedding", but the Irish made another good start when Quinn scored after 17 minutes.

After that, they played only in fits and starts, and were far from convincing. Kelly had a great game, and pulled off some heroic saves, keeping the Macedonians at bay as the game entered its closing stages.

And McCarthy, looking for more energy and to batten down the hatches, began making substitutions.

He took off Quinn in the 77th minute, replacing him with Cascarino.

Star man Kennedy was hauled off after 85 minutes. "What's going on?" said Kennedy to assistant manager Ian Evans as his replacement, Matt Holland, went on to make his debut.

Forage

Keith O'Neill, who had replaced Robbie Keane, was moved from a central role to the left, leaving Cascarino to forage up front on his own.

Holland didn't look as if he knew what was expected of him, while Kinsella and McLoughlin were tiring.

As the Irish backed off, they conceded space in front of goal to the Macedonians, who mounted attack after attack.

By then, 10-man Yugoslavia were drawing with Croatia, and a win would put Ireland through as automatic qualifiers.

Injury-time. Almost there. And then, 48 minutes and 14 seconds into the second half, Goran Stavrevski, who had been tormented by Kennedy for most of the game, scored from a corner, giving Kelly no chance.

Cue a rush of Macedonian officials and players racing to McCarthy mouthing insults and making rude gestures.

"It was disgusting," said Packie Bonner, who was on the bench. "It's one thing to celebrate a goal, but what we saw there was a hell of a lot different. It was obscene. Unbelievable."

Thus was insult added to injury. A 1-1 result. No automatic qualification. Into the play-offs, where the Republic were drawn with Turkey.

A 1-1 draw at home and a 0-0 away result ensured that Mick and the boys would be watching Euro 2000 on television.

May you and your team never 'have a Macedonia' Signor Trapattoni!

Irish Independent

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