Last chance saloon
For Duff, Dunne, Given and Keane, Estonia clash offers opportunity of just reward for a decade of heartache and empty summers in loyal service to the Ireland cause
ASK a footballer to think long-term and they will generally say they are only looking to the next game. For a quartet of senior Irish players, however, this week is different.
They have served their nation with distinction for more than a decade, and it is impossible to imagine life without them. After an early taste of the big time in Japan and Korea, they shared disappointments in the prime of their career, with the consistent consolation that there would always be a next time.
Now, there is no such certainty. If it all goes wrong over the next 180 minutes, then their international careers could end next Tuesday, either voluntarily or otherwise. It is a sombre realisation for hardened pros who have represented their country for as long as they can remember.
"I said to you guys before that we haven't long left in our international careers," Shay Given reflected yesterday. "And we think this is a real chance of success, a big opportunity for all of us."
No doubt, his words echo the sentiments of Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne and Damien Duff. After Kevin Kilbane's abrupt ejection from Giovanni Trapattoni's plans -- presumably never to return -- they are the four elder statesmen of the Irish party. They came through the ranks together, learning on the job in the early days of the Mick McCarthy era.
All four were present in Saipan and for all the associated strife. Given, Keane, and Duff starred in the overshadowed World Cup that followed, with Dunne on the periphery. He took longer to mature than the others, but September's lion-hearted show in Moscow has secured his legacy. That screamed of a determination to seize another qualification chance before it's too late.
The centre-half's growing pains mean that he will never reach the 100 cap mark that Given and Keane have already scaled. Duff is on course to reach that landmark in Poland and Ukraine if Ireland do the job against Estonia.
None of the four have said they will walk away in the event of failure, but Given and Dunne have hedged their bets in recent months, and Keane has a new life in America. Duff has suggested that he will always be available, yet he specialises in a position where Ireland have a depth of options. He is a father now, too.
Earlier this week, Given spoke about the pain of Paris, stressing that after two years of a campaign which included multiple trips abroad and away from family, it was heartbreaking for it all to fall down around one incident. At this stage of their lives, the long trips no longer have a novelty value. Unless, of course, it is to a major finals. That's a slightly more appealing prospect than the jaunts to Kazakhstan and the Faroe Islands that lie ahead in the World Cup campaign.
"There have been too many sad stories," reflects Given, with a nod to the lost play-offs and the empty summers since 2002. "And we want to have a happy one at the end of this. At the minute, these are the two biggest games of my career, because they're so important.
"And, for me, personally, I've never played in the European Championship finals. I'd like to look back when I'm finished and say I've played in the World Cup and European Championship. I can't say that yet and this is a real chance for me and some of the players to do that -- and maybe the last chance at the Euros.
"If you're not focused for these two games, you'll never be. But, personally, whether it's my first game or my last game, I want us to get through because of the lift it would give the country."
They are due a dose of good vibes. Leave aside the fever of 2002 and the shared journeys have been bittersweet. The Kerr era was a tale of near misses and frustration, the Staunton days a pantomine.
Given emerged without the mental scars because of the physical scars that significantly contributed to the mess.
On the dark night in Nicosia that Ireland conceded five to Cyprus -- with Dunne enduring a torrid evening that concluded with a red card -- Keane and Duff were the only two players to front up and face the cameras afterwards. Both acknowledged that the team deserved the abuse that came their way. A few days later, they were regretting the statement. The enduring image is a bemused Duff shaking hands with a giant-sized Miss Piggy in Malahide.
As other sports were shown the love, the national football team was a laughing stock.
Paris restored them to a pedestal. Some wondered if the disappointment would lead to retirements there and then, but the idea was shelved. This campaign was the retrieval mission, and it has brought them to this giddy threshold.
By now, they've been around so long that they are taken for granted. In their respective club careers, questionable decisions have prompted scorn. The medal haul is mediocre. But it would take a particularly embittered critic to deny their commitment to the Irish cause.
Given and Keane's insatiable desire for caps tells its own story.
So too does the memory of Dunne's blood-stained shirt in Moscow, or Duff making his way around Slovakia as a fan on crutches on the same trip that Stephen Ireland turned his back on national service.
As a contrast to the lows, they revelled in the atmosphere at the Aviva Stadium after last month's win over Armenia. They sensed a different mood.
"There'd been people talking about how it was not the same as the old Lansdowne," says Given. "But I think that proved the new stadium can be rocking as well."
He knows that no Irish team has ever qualified for a major tournament in Dublin, so tomorrow's task is to set up a special Tuesday in the capital.
Another chance, and maybe a last chance, to make history, before they become it.