Monday 23 October 2017

Ireland searching for a new hero to join the scoring elite

Robbie Keane strikes late to draw Ireland level during the 2002 World Cup against Germany
Robbie Keane strikes late to draw Ireland level during the 2002 World Cup against Germany
John O’Shea celebrates after scoring Ireland’s late equaliser last year
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

The Irish band of brothers who have scored an international goal since 1970 against the mighty Germans forms a small and exclusive club - and the nation would be delighted to welcome a new member on Thursday night.

The Criterion for admittance is simple: find a way past the world champions' defence and somehow get the ball in the German net.

No marks for style. Flawless execution and the spectacular are not required. All that is needed is for the ball to cross the goal line.

It could nestle in the rigging via a header, a toe-poke from close range, a mis-hit off a shin, whatever.

Courage, maybe even a touch of desperation and reckless abandon at the right moment, would probably be a factor.

John O'Shea, the last Irish player to get on the scoresheet against Germany, epitomised all those qualities on Tuesday, October 14 in the Group D qualifier last year in Gelsenkirchen.

The men in green performed heroically and at times had ridden their luck to keep Germany scoreless until Toni Kroos slotted the ball home with 20 minutes left.


But O'Shea, scorer of just two goals in 99 previous internationals, raided forward in the dying moments and was rewarded for his positive intentions.

Wes Hoolahan and Jeff Hendrick did the spadework, and O'Shea launched himself at the ball, getting fractionally ahead of Mats Hummels for the crucial touch to beat goalkeeper Manuel Neuer from close range and salvage a draw.

O'Shea will never forget that special moment, and if Martin O'Neill's team can find a way to qualify for France 2016, the goal will assume greater importance in the annals of our soccer history.

"It was a great ball over, and I took a chance and got across my man Hummels, who was probably the best man on the pitch," said O'Shea after the game.

"It was the last kick of the game as well. My (scoring) ratio should be a bit better without a doubt from playing that many games. But it was important for me to keep the momentum going.

"Hopefully there are a few more to come."

A fourth career goal for O'Shea would be welcome at the Aviva Stadium on Thursday, but if any other player in a green jersey can join the 'Who put the ball in the German net?' club, O'Shea would be delighted.

The men who have achieved that feat since 1970 are Paddy Mulligan, Gerry Ryan, Frank Stapleton, Tony Cascarino, Gary Kelly, Robbie Keane, Andy Keogh and O'Shea.

All of those goals came in friendly matches except for Keane's, Keogh's and O'Shea's.

Keane's was a sensational World Cup equaliser in the 92nd minute of a pulsating contest in Ibaraki, Japan, in 2002 as he latched on to a Niall Quinn header and smashed the ball past Oliver Kahn.

Keogh took his goal well in 2012, but with a demoralised Ireland 6-0 down at that stage at home, it was barely a consolation score.

Stapleton, a former holder of the Ireland scoring record, recalls his moment against the then West Germany in Dublin back in 1989.

It was to prove an eventful day as Liam Brady's humiliating substitution by Jack Charlton after 35 minutes was the final straw for a proud Irish hero who announced his retirement from international football after the match.

Stapleton, Tony Galvin and Brady were included in the team, and Stapleton felt that Charlton had "picked a team so that he could finish people's career."

"That was the downside of it. He played Liam, he played myself, he played Tony Galvin because I think he wanted to show that we were nearly gone, and there was no better team to play than the Germans," recalled the former Manchester United striker.

"If they got a smell of any weakness, they would go through it, but it didn't work out like that."

From a personal perspective, Stapleton just got on with the job.

"It was a situation where you just had to focus on the game," he said, albeit that he hoped he could prove to Charlton that he still had plenty to offer.

Stapleton did that by shooting the home team into the lead after just ten minutes. The big striker was quick to anticipate a backpass attempt by Thomas Hassler and fired the ball into the net.

A Blackburn Rovers player at that stage, Stapleton had almost scored earlier when he lofted a shot over German keeper Bodo Illgner but the ball slid just wide.

The Germans' 32nd minute equaliser by Hans Dorfner gave Charlton the chance to substitute Brady, and the post-match coverage was dominated by that event.

Stapleton was to get his 20th and final Ireland goal - beating Don Givens' record - when he scored in a pre-World Cup 90 friendly against Malta in Valetta just before the tournament began.

He was subsequently overtaken by Niall Quinn (21) as our record goalscorer, and since then Keane has set the bar at a phenomenal 67.

Keane's longevity is remarkable. He is in the autumn of his career but to be still playing at international level 13 years after that memorable occasion in Ibaraki underlines his commitment to the Irish cause.

Not only is his record unlikely to be broken, but there is still no comparable replacement available for Keane.

Stapleton represented his country 71 times between 1976 and 1990.

Stapleton took only three minutes of his debut against Turkey in Ankara on October 13, 1976 to show he had the scoring touch by heading in the first goal of a game which finished 3-3.

Now, 39 years later, he looks at the challenge facing the present Irish team against one of the great sides of world football.

One thing has not changed in almost four decades:

"The Germans' biggest asset is their mentality. How many times have we seen them get last-minute goals to equalise or win games. They never stop, they never give up," he said.

Stapleton starts with the basics: if the Irish are to get chances on Thursday, they will first have to work their socks off to keep the Germans at bay.

"If we're to have a chance, we have to be positive in our game-plan, but that's not saying you go gung ho about it," he warned.

"We know who we're playing against. You have to set your stall out to stop them first.

"We've got the world champions coming to Dublin. They're not going to sit back. They're going to come and take us on.

"Obviously we don't want a situation we had before where they beat us 6-1, so we're going to have to be pretty patient, and bide our time.

"If we get an opportunity, and there may not be that many in the game, we're going to have to take it.

The Arsenal and United FA Cup winner believes that Martin O'Neill will think long and hard about the Keane situation.

"I don't know whether Robbie would be the first-choice striker against the world champions," he said. "He may have more impact coming on in the second half.

"Whoever Martin chooses, we need to find a bit of space in behind the German defence.

"That's what the Scots (who lost 3-2 at home last month) did against them.


"They got behind the ball when they didn't have it, and they worked really hard to try and retrieve it, and catch the Germans on the counter.

"I think there's a possibility there for us."

Germany will feel they have nothing to fear from coming to Dublin.

The Aviva has yet to develop the intimidating, fortress-type atmosphere that made the old Lansdowne Road stadium a difficult venue for away teams in the peak years of Charlton's reign.

Some of that is down to the players and the managements who came after Charlton, but Stapleton hopes that Thursday is an exception and that the home fans rally round the cause.

"We need a good balance between being positive and yet patient, and a good backing from the crowd," he said.

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