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Trying to Bloc out the Cold reality

COMMUNIST rule may have fallen but the Iron Curtain remains in place as far as Irish football is concerned -- and Ireland will have to change the habits of a lifetime and start winning matches in the old Eastern Bloc if the current side are to progress to the European Championship finals.

Those finals in 2012 take place, of course, in Poland and Ukraine, which in itself is a bad omen for Irish fans. They say that Guinness doesn't travel well but when it comes to matches away to former communist states, our record is truly dismal -- in 14 games played in what used to be the Eastern Bloc since the end of Jack Charlton's days, Ireland have managed three wins (there was a fourth 'away' victory to one of the former Soviet republics but that win against Georgia under Giovanni Trapattoni two years ago was in Germany, the game played in Mainz).

We had a decent run on our travels under Charlton -- wins in Albania, Lithuania and Latvia (twice) in 1993-94 but since then it's been more or less a succession of 'nul points', the only wins coming in Lithuania, Estonia and Georgia.


Kevin Kilbane played in almost all of those games so he knows too well the pain of travelling to places like Prague, Skopje and Moscow and coming away with nothing, and with games due in Armenia (today), Slovakia (next month), Macedonia (next June) and Russia (next September), our record has to change.

"They are tough, tough places to go. I think our record bears that out but I also think if you look at the home records of those nations, they don't lose too many games," Kilbane told the Herald as he prepared to win cap number 105 tonight.

"We haven't won in eastern Europe all that often and the last two wins there, away to Georgia twice, were by a one-goal margin. I would settle for the same again here in Yerevan, a 1-0 win would suit me as long as we get the points.

"I think the good thing for this campaign, and for this game in Armenia tonight, is that a lot of the players now have the experience of going to places like that. We played in Bari and Paris and did well, I know it's a different scenario when you go somewhere like Zagreb or Moscow, but I think we are better prepared now than two years ago.

"Once you don't concede, you have a great chance in a place like Armenia because you'd fancy your chances of nicking a goal. So the game plan tonight will be based around not conceding and we'll take it from there. Hopefully we can do enough to win it. We have conceded at the wrong time in places like Bulgaria and that has to change if we're going to qualify as Moscow, Slovakia and Macedonia are very tough venues, as we know only too well.

"I think in a lot of those games in the east we were in a good position but we shot ourselves in the foot. Under Stan we were leading in Slovakia but threw it away as they got a draw. We came very close to getting a point in Croatia a few years ago but gave away a goal and the points. So that's something we will look to before this game, make sure that if we get into a good position that we defend it well and for the 90 minutes."

Kilbane didn't play in the early games in the Balkan-heavy Euro 2000 campaign as he was with the U21s (memorably scoring a late penalty to give the U21s a draw away to Yugoslavia), so his first taste of Eastern hospitality proper was in Macedonia in the final game of the campaign, in 1999.

"That still hurts, to this day it hurts me to think about that game because of the cost," Kilbane said. Ireland gave Macedonia a late goal and equaliser, that result preventing automatic qualification for the finals.

"I think that was the biggest heartache I have had in my career, even worse than Paris because we were a minute away from the finals but ended up with nothing as we failed against Turkey in the play-offs," added Kilbane.

His team-mate that day, Kenny Cunningham, is now an ex-player but he too is still pained by the experience, as the ex-Birmingham City man had more bad days than good behind the Iron Curtain.

"To be honest I try not to talk about Macedonia in '99, if I start thinking about it again it just opens up the wound again," Cunningham told the Herald in Yerevan today, the former Ireland captain here in Armenia as part of RTE's commentary team.

"In that game we had our noses in front, but our ball retention wasn't good enough in the end and they hit us in the last minute.

"I know our record there looks bad but you have to recognise that a lot of those countries are top football nations, we played Yugoslavia and Croatia 10 or so years ago and they were two of the best teams in the world then.

"The Croatia game in '99 sticks out for me too, they beat us 1-0 with a Davor Suker goal and it was my fault. I didn't get tight enough on my man, I was beaten by Suker and he beat us with the goal.

"After that I felt about as low as I had felt in my career at the time. We went to Malta straight after that but I don't think I spoke to anyone for about two days. I was hurting from the Suker goal and the defeat, one lapse of concentration from me had cost the whole team."

But Cunningham does admit that an attitude problem has hampered Ireland in past games in Eastern states.

"Probably the biggest cliché in the game now is that there are no more easy games, players say it all the time," he explains. "But as a player if you say it to yourself over and over, then you convince yourself that it will be a hard game and doubt creeps in.

"I think we need a bit more confidence in ourselves, players need to respect the opposition of course but they also need to realise at times that, man for man, they are superior to the other side and they have to go our and prove that.

"I think mentality has played a part. Sometimes the attitude is to go out there, sit in and settle the game down, get a feel for the game and then try to get more control as the game goes on. But I would like to see us start in a more positive frame of mind.


"If you are serious about qualifying you should try and start the game on the front foot. Because if you stand off, concede too much ground too soon in the game, show the opposition too much respect, that will give the opposition confidence. So you then spend the rest of the game trying to chip away at the confidence which you gave them in the first place.

"There is a general perception in football that away from home you have to aim for a clean sheet more than anything, but if Ireland are to qualify this time, I think we'll need to do more, and we can do that as the team showed in Paris, so that's the Ireland I would like to see in Armenia tonight," added Cunningham.

Kilbane has been selected for every competitive international since 1999 and he is expected to maintain that run by playing at left full tonight, even though he's been inactive for his club, an unused sub last weekend.

"The official line was that I was rested but whatever you call it I didn't play and at this stage of my career I want to be playing every week," he says. "It's disappointing when you don't play but I have had knocks before and I will deal with it, I feel fit and fresh and I will be ready for duty for Ireland tonight if the manager picks me."