WHEN Jack Charlton takes the squad to Sant' Elia this evening for a familiarisation run around the stadium, they can't help but be impressed — and hopefully inspired — by their surroundings.
While the team's last training spin is likely to be accompanied by the sound of banging and hammering as the carpenters and workmen race against time to have the facilities ready, the setting is magical, the pitch a dream and when it's full to capacity tomorrow night it will trumpet loudly to eleven Irishmen that they have truly marched onto the world stage!
All the speculation yesterday centred on who those 11 would be, with Chris favoured to come into the side at the expense of Stephen Staunton and Chris Hughton moving to the left where he would once again face Chris Waddle on whom he did such a good job in the European finals.
The only other area in which Charlton appears to have a doubt is at centre back where he will decide between David O'Leary and Kevin Moran as partner to Mick McCarthy.
However, there are also suggestions that O'Leary will be used at right back. The consensus appears to be that Staunton, who played in six of the eight qualifying games and recently scored his first goal in the 1-0 win against the Soviet Union, will be the player to lose out, whatever formation the manager settles on.
These are major decisions to have to make on the eve of the most important game the Republic has faced but at the downtown University Sportsground in Cagliari yesterday, the laid back Charlton resembled nothing more than Jacques Tati in the French film classic Monsieur Hulot's Holiday.
The comparison was pointed out by a l’Equipe journalist who commented: "All that is missing is the bike”— and he was spot on...the tall, lanky figure with the ridiculous sun hat perched on top and arms waving around like a conductor at a symphony.
While Charlton is enjoying himself, England manager Bobby Robson's current demeanour indicates the opposite. His performance for the foreign media left onbe wondering. Asked if he would announce his team on Sunday, he pondered for fully 30 seconds before pronouncing “no”. Certainly not the decisiveness one expects from a world class manager.
The Irish training yesterday was conducted in what seemed like a fan oven, a warm wind doing nothing to alleviate the heat which had built up considerably by the 11.0 start. Just watching it made one fear for what lies ahead for the Irish players next Sunday in Palermo when the greater humidity there will add to their problems.
In the circumstances, Charlton opted for a combination of a kickabout and a 30 minutes practice match in which Chris Morris didn't take part due to a recurrence of the ankle injury which kept him out out of the Scottish Cup final.
"It becomes inflamed and I was taking no chances with it," he told me. "But I will be alright if selected to play against England."
Once the session was over Charlton was surrounded by media people and conducted interviews with French, Germans and Italians as well as the Irish and English.
He took it air in good part but wasn't slow to pull up a French journalist when he suggested in a question that England's defence was their weak point.
"That's your opinion, not mine," he said. "So you write that" ... and he walked off.
The day had started off lazily for the players, most of whom didn't breakfast until 9.30, the original planned time of departure for the training ground, a 40 kilometre run from their hotel.
Chris Hughton was one of the earlier risers and spoke about how the last three years have been the best of his international career even though he has struggled, mainly through injuries, to keep his place at club level.
He outshone clubmate Chris Waddle in Stuttgart and he now looks more likely to play in this vital game than does his club's star midfielder, England's Paul Gascoigne.
"There's no doubt the last three years have been the best. In the past, when I returned from international duty, the other players would ask me how I got on — they wouldn't even know who we were playing.
"Now there is so much interest even among the younger players who ask me about our tactics and what Jack is like. It's something I'm enjoying both for myself and the Irish team."