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Vincent Hogan: Ireland's ghosts haunt return to Slovakia

Out of the stony soil of Irish football mishaps, a few names carry unusual purchase. They emerged as twilight assassins, largely inconspicuous figures who came plunging into the nation's story with sudden and plenary force.

Think Goran Stavrevski, October '99 in Skopje. Think Abas Suan, March '05 in Tel Aviv. And, for this week specifically, think Marek Cech, September '07 in Bratislava. You probably won't have a mental picture of their faces but three men certainly will. Mick McCarthy, Brian Kerr and Steve Staunton all felt that cold breath in the rib-cage that the concession of critical injury-time goals can visit upon a football manager.

In Staunton's case, Cech's late, late strike at the austere old Stadion Pasienky all but drew a line under his bid to guide Ireland to the Euro '08 finals. It turned what would have been a revitalising 2-1 victory into a demoralising 2-2 draw and those leaked points left Ireland needing a victory against the Czech Republic four days later in Prague.

Regrettably, we would be too busy scanning through death notices to even salvage a draw.

Ireland return to Slovakia this week, albeit this time to the more modern, all-seater Stadion Pod Dubnom in Zilina. And, inevitably, recall of the eccentric ways of a young Corkman prone to bouts of exaggeration will draw the odd sentimental smile.

Stephen Ireland, it is often forgotten, scored a splendid goal that night in Bratislava. But he also set in train a sequence of stories that took in multiple (happily bogus) deaths and all manner of subsequent theorising that, perhaps, team-mates had been unkind about his hair.

He doesn't have any (hair) today and, of course, he hasn't played for his country since. But he does live in what looks like a giant Barbie-doll house and every now and then is prone to dispensing interviews, declaring the improbability of him ever returning from international exile.

So Bratislava didn't just unzip late disappointment for us three years ago. It gave us a story of such industrial legs that even Tolstoy would have declared it demoralisingly long-winded.

Slovakia and Ireland have gone to different places since that odd night by the Danube. Both replaced their managers after failure to make those Euro finals and while a French thief's hand deprived Giovanni Trapattoni's boys of a possible place in South Africa this summer, Vladimir Weiss took Slovakia on a magic-carpet ride in the Rainbow Nation.

Actually, there was something remarkable about how Slovakia's World Cup adventure this year echoed so much of Ireland's campaign in US '94. A momentous group defeat of Italy propelled them into the last 16, only to then exit at the hands of a technically accomplished Dutch team.

"Slovakia is having an unbelievable football orgasm," chimed the front page of the daily, 'Plus', after their 3-2 defeat of Marcelo Lippi's Italy. 'SME' declared it 'The Slovak Miracle'.

And all this after Weiss had become entangled in an angry row with Slovak journalists after his team lost 0-2 to Paraguay earlier in the group stages. Remember Big Jack's endlessly spinning dials in Orlando?

Today, the Slovaks lie an impressive 16th in FIFA's world rankings, 17 places ahead of Ireland. Yet, that night three years ago in Bratislava, Ireland were two places above their hosts, in 37th position.

So this game carries a rather different sense of hierarchy now. A draw would be considered a decent result in Zilina tomorrow. In 2007, two leaked points plunged the Irish into a spiritual darkness.

One squad member recalls: "It felt like a loss when we went back in the dressing-room, a real kick in the solar plexus. Because we had been really comfortable at 2-1. But there was a nervousness in that team that made you feel we'd always leak a late chance.

"So you were kind of not that surprised either.

"When we got in, Pat Devlin said something about Stephen Ireland having got some bad news. I remember him sitting in the corner and Mick Byrne fussing around him, doing everything he could to comfort the lad. And John Delaney was immediately busy, trying to sort out a flight.

"But, as players, the general herd just moves on. I suppose that's the coldness of football. The attitude would be, 'Let's put in a tenner each and send off a wreath'. People were pre-occupied with not having won the game and now needing to win in Prague four days later.

"And it was only when we got there that we started getting wind that there was no dead grandmother after all."

The FAI would compassionately invest €15,000 in the hire of a private jet to hurry young Ireland home to an imaginary wake. Initially, it was his maternal grandmother, Patricia Tallon -- who had reared him from the age of five -- that was said to have passed away.

When the poor woman staunchly protested her health, news came through that the bad news had, in fact, concerned Ireland's paternal grandmother, Brenda Kitchener. Remarkably, she too then got on the airwaves to declare herself, well, alive.

In the midst of this circus, an unsuspecting Staunton (pictured opposite leaving the pitch in Bratislava) declared the young Corkman "a player who loves playing for his country". It all seems quite surreal in recall now. For Stephen's love was -- as we would later ascertain -- a mite on the brittle side.

He would claim afterwards that his desire to flee Slovakia was actually down to news that his pregnant girlfriend had miscarried. And, in the midst of it all, poor Staunton bore the look of a man who had begun doubting his own name.

Kevin Doyle's wonderful 57th-minute strike should, at least, have given the Irish a safe passage out of Bratislava that September Saturday. But Cech, an unremarkable defender then on FC Porto's books and now with West Brom, would change everything with a left-footed injury-time thunderbolt.

"That result knocked the stuffing out of us," recalls the squad member. "We had recovered from the debacle in Cyprus (2-5) to win home games against Wales and Slovakia and draw with the Czech Republic.

"But we were accident prone back then. It's one thing that Trapattoni managed to sort out, at least until last Friday."

And Stephen Ireland? Was he, perhaps, the butt of cruel, playground taunts in a dressing-room fixated with his suddenly luxuriant hair? "Absolutely not. All these things were used subsequently to try and explain why he didn't want to be with the Irish team. People try to imply something went on that didn't. Look, slagging is a constant in any dressing-room. Everyone gets hit by something. But Stephen was never a particular target."

In football, the scoreline is the only truth. After Friday's flurry of surprises in Dublin and Yerevan, the battle for supremacy in Group B swings open like a barn door. Just three games in and, already, the three main contenders have all been beaten unexpectedly. So the trip to Zilina is already freighted with uncommon significance.

Time was, this kind of journey into Eastern Europe held few fears for Irish teams. But recent history screams out a rather different story and names like Marek Cech and Goran Stavrevski still haunt us. Remember too that, after tomorrow, Ireland's next away assignment takes us back to Skopje next June.

Could it be that forewarned is forearmed?

Irish Independent