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Courage needed for Irish happiness to begin at home

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Shay Given in action during training

Shay Given in action during training

SPORTSFILE

Shay Given in action during training

THERE was a time when a different Luis Suarez was making football headlines in this part of the world.

In 1989, Spain arrived in Dublin for a crucial World Cup qualifier with a manager who had lined out as a midfielder for Barcelona back in the 1950s.

Like his more celebrated Uruguayan namesake, Suarez had an ability to wind people up. He caused outrage by suggesting that John Aldridge had let his country down by missing a game due to his understandable grief at Hillsborough disaster.

But when it came to the Lansdowne Road pitch, the Irish audience could understand the opposition manager's dismay. In these pages, the late, great John Martin recorded his discussion with the interpreter acting on the Spanish supremo's behalf. "Senor Suarez, he say it's awful," said the translator.

The surface was even more uneven than usual, with stud marks visible ten metres in from the West Stand sideline; scrums had formed there for Leinster Cup rugby matches the previous weekend.

Earlier this week, Andy Townsend laughed as he recalled the state of the place on that famous afternoon where a Michel own goal propelled Ireland towards Italia '90. "I remember the grass, I think I could just about see Ray Houghton's knees, the grass was that long," said Townsend. "And I remember the Spanish lads coming out, looking at it and thinking, 'What are we in for here?'"

The magic of the rickety old venue has been referenced frequently this week as, once again, we ask if Ireland are ready to deliver a big performance to properly christen the Aviva Stadium.

It inevitably prompts wistful references to the era where the inadequacy of the facilities gave the hosts a genuine home advantage. Psychologically, other nations struggled to come to terms with the surroundings.

Labouring that point is in danger of overlooking the fact that the quality of the performances had a major impact too; in every sense the visitors were made to feel uncomfortable. The security of being able to deliver in Dublin laid the foundation for success.

"Everything we generated in my time started here, at home, on our soil, on our patch," continues Townsend. "Everything we did was a consequence of what we did here and the way we went about it here. I still don't think we've nailed it here in the stadium."

Robbie Keane and Shay Given (right) are the only members of the squad for Sunday that were involved in the win over Louis van Gaal's Holland in 2001 that is developing mythical status with every passing year.

Roy Keane's presence in the camp has added to the nostalgia and, naturally, he was pressed for his recollections on Wednesday.

Quipping

After quipping that assistant managers are unable to make tackles, he stressed that Sunday's selection will be physically ready to put their 'bodies on the line' for the cause. It will take more than that, though.

Looking through the record under Giovanni Trapattoni at the stadium, what's striking is how many games Ireland actually did start on the front foot.

Superior Russian and German outfits settled matters quickly, but against qualification rivals, the home team did spring out with purpose. In the do-or-die encounter with Sweden in September 2013, green shirts buzzed around in the early minutes and Robbie Keane seized the initiative. There was a gradual assertiveness in the first half against Austria too, but those fixtures both had unhappy endings.

In many ways, if one fixture could be used to sum up the standard experience at the renovated venue, it's the visit of Macedonia four years ago this week. There was respect for the Balkans but Trapattoni's charges were a better side and quickly opened up a two-goal advantage.

But they eased off, conceding casually before the break and then ended up hanging on for large parts of the second half, ceding possession to moderate players that were comfortably swatted aside in the return in Skopje.

A confident host would have showed no mercy, yet this was a game that had a unnecessary flirtation with disaster.

The crowd were uninspired; supporters can play their part and there are places on the football map where the atmosphere is ferocious regardless of the fare.

Still, watching a home side focused largely on containment has made it hard for the natives to raise the volume levels.

That's why there was limited jubilation following the defeat of Armenia seven months later, the most important win that Ireland have scored at the Aviva. The manner in which Ireland spent periods of that encounter fighting to keep out a team with 10 men checked the euphoria. Results kept the show on the road, but the performances affected the public's confidence.

O'Neill has consistently indicated that there will be a distinction between the way his team operates in Ballsbridge and the tactics that were employed in the autumn where avoiding defeat was key.

Wes Hoolahan has been favoured for home friendlies and the turkey shoot against Gibraltar and, in his absence for the November friendly against USA, David McGoldrick was cast in the playmaking role.

"Playing at home and away, the games are different," stressed O'Neill earlier this week. He also referenced the team's need to be flexible within matches, a contrast from his predecessor's strategy.

Trapattoni's only real diversion from Plan A was in the dying stages of the Russian match and it actually instigated a semblance of a fightback.

Sunday should be intense, and the Irish approach will dictate the mood. Too many Aviva dates have descended into subdued exercises where the tourists enjoy the freedom to monopolise possession.

Houghton thinks that the paying public can play their part. "We have to get this across to our fans," he says, "This is where the players need them. They're going to be the twelfth man.

Fragile

"I know this is used in football a lot, it can be a cliche, but I think that some of our boys might be a bit fragile because of their club form and that's why the support will be important."

That fiery atmosphere is guaranteed if recent Polish dates are anything to go by; their noisy followers should spark the locals into song for the Sunday evening kick-off.

With a modern pitch and facilities offering a business-class experience for the players, this Irish generation have to ruffle Polish feathers by marking their territory in a controlled fashion.

That requires an unexpected subtlety which bucks the stereotype, a performance with composure as well as courage.

Irish Independent