Saturday 20 April 2019

Eamon Carr: 'Mick McCarthy must beware the Ides of March for Euro opener against Gibraltar'

Ireland manager Mick McCarthy watches as Macedonia score in injury-time in Skopje, October 1999 to deny him automatic qualification for Euro 2000
Ireland manager Mick McCarthy watches as Macedonia score in injury-time in Skopje, October 1999 to deny him automatic qualification for Euro 2000

Eamon Carr

In the ancient epic tale of sex and savagery, the Odyssey, a story is told of how Antonius was ready to sip from a golden goblet of wine when Odysseus whacked him.

That, it’s claimed, is the origin of the phrase “there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip.”

As he sets out on his latest heroic quest, Mick McCarthy says: “My remit with eight qualifying games is to win as many points as I can.”

He’s a canny lad, Mick. So he’ll be well aware that, when least expected, Ireland has often shown a talent for locating a banana skin and then proceeding to break a leg on it.

McCarthy knows that “ultra-competitive” Gibraltar will be anxious to deny Ireland in the way local league club Lincoln Red Imps embarrassed Glasgow Celtic with a 1-0 Champions League defeat in 2016.

Traditionally, it’s been the minnows who’ve exposed the fault lines beneath the surface of Ireland’s  ambition.

Having got through to the knock-out stage of World Cup USA 94, Ireland looked good when beginning their Euro 96 qualifying campaign.

But the away game to Liechtenstein in June ’95 signalled the end of an era.

Although they conceded 40 goals in Group 6 in their first-ever participation in an international tournament, Liechtenstein managed to gain one point in the qualifiers. And that was from holding Ireland to a nil-all draw at the Sportpark Eschen-Mauren in the mountain principality.

John Aldridge, Niall Quinn, Denis Irwin, Jason McAteer and Steve Staunton were on the team that played against a side that featured one professional footballer (Mario Frick) alongside a bunch of local part-timers.

Mick McCarthy with Tony Cascarino at the end of the game after Macedonia score in injury-time in Skopje, October 1999 to deny them automatic qualification for Euro 2000
Mick McCarthy with Tony Cascarino at the end of the game after Macedonia score in injury-time in Skopje, October 1999 to deny them automatic qualification for Euro 2000

Liechtenstein had a plan. “We tried to go as long as we could without conceding,” said Frick.

Much to Jack Charlton’s frustration, the plan worked.

Jack’s last match was Ireland’s loss to Holland in the play-off in December.

To his chagrin, McCarthy has already been reminded about the notorious 1-1 away draw to Macedonia which scuppered Ireland’s chances of qualification for Euro 2000.

Although Macedonia weren’t regarded as a major threat, they’d inflicted a 3-2 defeat on Ireland in the 1998 World Cup qualifiers.

As a result, the coaching staff arranged for the worst Ireland player in training to wear a jersey with the legend “I had a Macedonia” scribbled on it.

The jokey training ground initiative came to be seen as bad ju-ju and a self-fulfilling prophecy of Biddy Early proportions when Macedonia effectively dumped Ireland out of Euro 2000.

In Skopje in October 1999, Ireland had a one-goal advantage thanks to a first-half flash of inventiveness by Niall Quinn and were one minute away from qualification when, deep in injury time, the Boys in Green were caught ball-watching as Macedonia’s Goran Stavrevski rose to meet a corner and smash a header into the Ireland net.

That goal, and the points dropped, shook Ireland like an earthquake.

As Yugoslavia went through, Ireland lost out in the play-offs to Turkey, following the ‘Battle of Bursa’.

Ireland didn’t lose to the Faroe Islands but it took until the second half for Brian Kerr’s team to score from a deflection and a penalty in Torshavn in 2005.

Admittedly, the pitch was bumpy and the conditions drizzly and damp, but Ireland’s performance was dispiriting.

Ranked 195th, San Marino didn’t win a single game in the Euro 2008 qualifiers. They conceded 57 goals. And, in total, scored two.

One of those was in Seravalle, where, with just seconds remaining in injury time, Stephen Ireland dramatically secured a 1-2 win for Steve Staunton’s stars against the part-time amateurs.

The fans were furious at Ireland’s performance. Someone unfurled a “Delaney Out” banner.

Staunton never recovered but held on grimly until the autumn before vacating the job. Mind you, “the Gaffer”, as Staunton styled himself, already had form.

A 5-2 drubbing by Cyprus in Nicosia in October 2006, with Staunton banned from the touchline, was described as “a sickening display of absolute indifference to the national jersey.”

Remembering our history of having been mauled, or simply embarrassed, by lowly sides, Mick McCarthy would be advised to beware the Ides of March.

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