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A zany night in Georgia amidst weapons of mass distraction

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Kevin Kilbane against Georgia in 2003

Kevin Kilbane against Georgia in 2003

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Kevin Kilbane against Georgia in 2003

THE game had not just been on the proverbial knife edge when Gary Doherty scored the Irish winner in Tbilisi 11 years ago; then again, a knife edge had already been introduced to the game. Literally.

It has been hurled at Kevin Kilbane by one of the feral locals in the March 29th Euro 2004 qualifier at the Lokomotivi Stadium.

And that wasn't all. A steel marble joined the fray. And a glass bottle. Lighters, cans and coins rattled off the subs' bench.

Easy for Roy Keane to say that Ireland shouldn't fear Tbilisi. He was still in international exile at this point. "You keep going on about a hostile atmosphere," he spat this week. "Brilliant. Bring it on."

We should hope not.

If Ireland's fledglings and scattered seasoned pros can maintain their heads tomorrow evening, against an inferior Georgian side, as the 2003 version managed to do under Brian Kerr, Martin O'Neill's side will return with an untroubled victory.

It is unlikely, despite Keane's simplistic rabble-rousing, to be as foreboding an assignment as it was on that chilling March day.

When Doherty, the Irish supporters' coveted 'Ginger Pele', nodded home a vital winner with five minutes left of a tough encounter, this writer immediately reached for a mobile phone to relate the breaking events to the sports desk.

Except the phone had been stolen. I checked to see if it was in my leather jacket. It, too, had been stealthily removed in the furore following Doherty's winner.

Anything, it seemed, that hadn't been nailed down was either there to be nicked or to be flung on to the field.

"It was fairly ropey stuff alright," recalls Brian Kerr, whose "handy" opening assignment, following the messy farewell to Mick McCarthy after opening qualifying defeats to Russia and Switzerland, was a grim Georgian trek.

"There were a load of fellahs hanging around the dressing-room, smoking and wearing leather jackets."

That would have fitted the description of this Irish journalist on the day before the match; not, sadly, on the day of it.

Tbilisi, and its environs, were much changed since Kerr and Liam Tuohy had brought their seminal U-20s to the World Youth semis there in 1985.

"We'd been there in '85 with Rasher Tuohy and the lads and I thought I would have known it a little bit," says Kerr, who returns to the city this weekend.

"But in between they'd had a bit of war and it wasn't really the same kind of place. We'd travelled down there from Moscow and Leningrad in '85 and to us back then, it seemed kind of affluent in relative terms.

"But it changed enormously. We went up to the hotel we'd all stayed in and it was battered to bits. It must have been one of the places there'd been some shootin' and sniperin'."

Regardless of McCarthy's sloppy exit, Kerr had already had a distracted build-up - Robbie Keane, tragically, had lost father Robert, just days before the squad congregated in Dublin, and the manager also had to rule out Steve Finnan, Steven Reid, Gary Kelly, Jason McAteer, Clinton Morrison, Rory Delap and Ian Harte.

To add to his headaches, post-Saipan, little had changed in terms of FAI advance planning.

"I discovered that some of the organisations in terms of travel and training arrangements were a bit haphazard to say the least.

"I'd an army fellah out there who was training the police force or something so I was relying on him to sort stuff for me."

Kilbane still recalls approaching the ground.

"I remember when we were driving into the stadium, they were making the slit your throat gesture and all that. I thought they were joking! When we were warming up, there was a lot being thrown at the lads in the corners.

"It would have been Brian's first game so there was a positive atmosphere around the squad as well. That's all I can remember because games seem to form into one when you look back, it was 11 years ago."

For a side that had mostly emerged together in hothouses like Tehran, Zagreb, Bursa and the rest, their clear-headed reaction to extreme provocation was as laudable as their concentration in achieving the result against a side sprinkled with stars such as Georgi Kinkladze and Shota Arveladze.

"I think that's probably as intimidating as it got when you're getting hit by bottles and knives," Kilbane remarks dryly. "It was all in a day's work for the Irish then wasn't it?"

Unlike Kilbane, who struggles to recall exactly when he became target practise for the local carnival knife throwers' convention, Kerr can, as with most games, distil the entire 90 minutes into a short, sharp précis.

"It wasn't a handy one to start off with. They'd gathered up a few troops for the match. I played Duffer up front kind of off Gary and he put us ahead. They got a ropey free-kick to equalise, their fellah threw himself a bit. Then all hell broke loose.

"Kevin got a belt of a knife, a bottle hit Shay's (Given) bar, Gary Breen got hit by a marble. Apart from those bits, I thought we had the better of the match. The Doc was playing centre-half regularly for Spurs but they'd throw him up front the odd time and he would prove a handy one for us."

Kilbane saw humour where others saw horror.

"Something hit my on the shoulder and arm," Kilbane recollects. "And then I looked down and it was sort of a flick knife or maybe a Stanley knife.

"It was open but, even though the non-sharp end hit him, it still caused damage.

"It cut into my arm and I needed 12 stitches afterwards. There wasn't too much made of it. I needed a big song and dance made out of it!

"Gary Breen was hit by a ball bearing, Lee Carsley was hit on the back of the head by a coke bottle and it was funny watching him because after the game he was laughing about it."

Doherty had a vodka bottle - its contents emptied, "that was a good job!" laughs Kilbane - tossed in his general direction.

"People were telling me afterwards when they watched it that it was lucky that it didn't hit me," said Doherty this week. "But the game was there to be won and we just got on with it."

The referee wasn't amused; nor was Kerr, who pointed out that the FAI had been fined for letting a "few schoolkids run on to the pitch" after an under-age game in Turner's Cross a few months earlier.

Ultimately

Ireland flew onwards to Albania and secured a 0-0 draw but ultimately there was too much ground to make up in the campaign for Kerr's men.

"That was a 0-0 but we should have beaten Albania," adds Kilbane. "We had the better players even though you try to take nothing for granted, but they are difficult and they make it hard for you.

"You know they've always got one or two players where you see got a little bit about you. Georgia will have two or three players who will cause problems. It will create problems for Martin O'Neill just as much as it did Brian."

And, while it may have been patronising to divine that Georgia's grievances in 2003 were restricted on purely poverty lines, they will host Ireland this time around with a stinging sense of grievance to slot into their quiver of emotions.

Ireland should have returned there in 2008 but the FAI, in a stunning disregard for their own country's troubled history, insisted on forcing a venue change after Russia's invasion of Georgia; the Georgians have been riled ever since.

"You need something to happen quickly in the game," says Kilbane. "Whether it is a decent pass whatever because if you don't, you start to think it's not your day and dwell on the atmosphere."

Keane may indeed get the hostile reception he apparently craves. Nothing, however, could possibly compare with the events of March, 2003.

Irish Independent