An honourable discharge for Mick's heroes
Ireland 1 Spain 1 (AET) Spain win 3-2 on penalties
AFTER the glory of Genoa 12 years ago, it was a Seoul destroying World Cup night for the Irish.
An honourable discharge from the tournament maybe but it didn't feel like that to the players, in particular, as they slipped away quietly into the night, some too distraught to talk.
The ones who missed the penalties were easy to identify as they shuffled silently through the mixed zone cordon in the bowels of the stadium an hour or so after another nerve-shredding emotional roller-coaster.
Ian Harte, David Connolly and Kevin Kilbane, all declined to make eye contact as they hurried to the sanctuary of the team bus while Matt Holland was detained for a pee by FIFA's dope controllers.
In time, the hurt won't feel so bad but last night they wanted the ground to open up and swallow them whole.
Harte was sick to the pit of his stomach for his miss in the 62nd minute but three other players all faltered from 12 yards in the shoot-out to share his agony.
If anything, the penalty pain only served, in a rather oblique way, to illustrate the togetherness of the Irish side. It was as if they were saying to one another 'if we're going down, we're going in flames.'
Spot-kicks are a great way to win; but a terrible way to lose. Just ask the heroes of Genoa, Kevin Sheedy, Ray Houghton, Andy Townsend, Tony Cascarino, Dave O'Leary and Packie Bonner
They carved a place in Irish sporting folklore through their successful efforts in a last 16 World Cup tie against Romania. Had even one of them missed, then Rome, Toto Schillaci, the Pope, none of it would have happened.
The line between success and failure in spot-kicks situation is a narrow as a tight-rope. One slip and you’re dead but if you stay upright, you're a God.
It was such a cruel way to go but better than a 3-0 spanking which was possibly feared after Fernando Morientes ghosted in at the near post to head Spain in front early on when the Irish were caught napping at a throw-in.
Thereafter, the Irish regrouped and, although the craggy war-horse, Steve Staunton was forced off with a stiff knee, were the better side even if they leant heavily on Shay Given to thwart Morientes and Raul in the second half.
Much of the Irish inspiration stemmed from the wing wizardry of Damien Duff who lit up the Suwon Stadium with the best display of football pyrotechnics yet seen in the World Cup.
Switched from centre-forward to the right-wing ten minutes after half time, Duff was truly awesome as he tormented the Spanish defence like a matador goading a bull.
It was Duff's artistry which led to the clumsy challenge from Juan Fran in the 62nd minute and presented Harte with the sort of present he usually puts away in his sleep.
But this was the World Cup, the stakes were never higher and Harte's uncertain run-up telegraphed the delivery to Iker Casillas who guessed right and made a straightforward save.
That Kilbane, following up, should then slew a left-foot volley horrible wide only added insult to injury as the rebound was almost easier to score than the spot-kick.
It was a cruel blow, but not a mortal one as the Irish somehow picked themselves up off the canvas and found hidden reserves of courage and skill.
As Spanish coach Joso Antonio Camacho withdrew both strikers, Raul and Morientes, and opted for a safety-first 4-5-1 formation, the Irish swept forward like white tornadoes.
Inside the final ten minutes, Duff jinked beautifully inside two tackles and fired past the upright with Casillas beaten before the 'keeper dashed from his den to make a critical block as Keane latched on to Niall Quinn's flick.
As the seconds counted down to the finish, the Irish, incredibly, were awarded a second penalty as the otherwise immaculate Fernando Hierro attempted to wrench Quinn's shirt off his back under the eye of Anders Frisk as Steve Finnan lofted a free-kick into the box.
It was the sort of incident commonplace in La Liga where most refs would turn the other cheek, but Mr Frisk made the bold, brave, call to point to the spot and ice-cool Keane kept Ireland in the tournament with a sublime finish for his 13th international goal.
Through extra time, the Irish were rampant, the players oblivious to the fact that Spain were down to ten men having used all three subs only to lose one of them, Albelda, with a hamstring injury.
Would it have made any difference if they knew? Possibly not as they thought they had a full-strength Spain on the run and were going gung-ho in search of the 'golden goal'
With Spain marshalled superbly by Hierro and the curly-topped Puyol, they restricted the rampant Irish to crumbs in the final third. Gary Breen, again a tower of strength in defence, had a half-chance; the irrepressible Keane volleyed wide while substitute Connolly wasn't far away with a left-foot daisy-cutter from the edge of the box.
Dazed and groggy, Spain played rope-a-dope and somehow clung on until Frisk ended their torment.
After that, it was all about keeping the head while 38,926 fans in the stadium were in danger of losing theirs.
Having the honour on the tee was a plus for the Irish and Keane drew first blood with a regal finish high into the rigging.
Hierro then held his nerve for the Spanish before Ireland contrived to miss three on the spin, as Holland smacked the crossbar and Casillas snuffed out tame efforts from Kilbane and Connolly
Astonishingly, Spain somehow squandered their third and fourth penalties as Juan Fran and Juan Carlos Valeron both missed the target
At 1-2 with one penalty left apiece, Steve Finnan restored sanity, and a glimmer of hope for the Irish, with an adroit finish past Casillas.
It was left to Spanish pin-up Gaizka Mendieta to end Ireland's misery and with a semi-stubbed shot straight down the middle — echoes of Big Cas in Genoa — Mendieta secured sainthood and shattered the Irish dreams.
It was 23.07 local time, and some 34 days since the squad assembled in Sunderland, their voyage of discovery, where they learnt a lot about themselves as people, and players, was finally over.
As Prospero observed in ‘The Tempest’: "Our revels are now ended." And what revels they were.
Rep of Ireland: Shay Given, Gary Kelly (Niall Quinn 55), Stephen Staunton (captain) (Kenny Cunningham 50), Gary Breen, Ian Harte (Connolly 82), Steve Finnan, Mark Kinsella, Matt Holland, Kevin Kilbane, Damien Duff, Robbie Keane.
Substitutes Not Used: Lee Carsley, Richard Dunne, Dean Kiely, Jason McAteer, Clinton Morrison, Andy O'Brien, Steven Reid, Alan Kelly.
Goals: Robbie Keane 90 penalty
Spain: Casillas, Puyol, Helguera, Hierro, Juanfran, Baraja, Valeron, De Pedro (Mendieta 66), Luis Enrique, Raul (Luque 80), Morientes (Albelda 71).
Substitutes Not Used: Contreras, Curro Torres, Joaquin, Nadal, Ricardo, Romero, Sergio, Tristan, Xavi.
Booked: Juanfran, Baraja, Hierro.
Goals: Morientes 8.
Referee: Anders Frisk (Sweden)
Philip Quinn's Player Ratings:
SHAY GIVEN - 8
You'd have got considerable odds on Given going the wrong way for all five penalties, something which stung his professional pride, but the Lifford lion had more than earned his worth with crucial second-half stops to thwart Morientes and Raul which kept the Irish alive.
STEVE FINNAN - 8
Was given a searching examination by the dynamic De Pedro but never flinched in an intriguing duel. More adventurous than Harte on the other flank and capped an excellent tournament with his sweetly-struck spot-kick.
GARY BREEN - 8
His only blip in four games was to allow Morientes off the leash for Spain's lead goal, but that Ireland allowed Spain two on one for a throw-in was schoolboy stuff. Didn't buckle and stood tall and resolute thereafter. One of Ireland's stars of the World Cup, now linked with a move to Charlton Athletic
STEVE STAUNTON - 8
After 102 games spanning 14 years, the iron-man went out at the top, although no one was more disgusted at limping off the battle-field than the Irish captain, whose knee seized up at half-time. Exchanged jerseys with Raul after the game, it was the only thing the Spaniard got off Staunton all night.
IAN HARTE - 7
Too distraught to talk to the media afterwards as the weight of the penalty miss burdened him down. After three successful penalties in the qualifiers, it was his first spot-kick blip for Ireland and it was so costly. Even so, he could be proud of his performance - his most effective of the tournament.
GARY KELLY - 7
Angrily kicked a water bottle when withdrawn early in the second half but something had to give to accommodate Quinn and he was the unlucky one. Made some lung-bursting sorties down the flank in the first half on the night of his 50th cap.
MARK KINSELLA - 8
Another grinding contribution on the coal-face as his alliance with Matt Holland ensured a steady supply of possession. For a player who has to take a breather in training because of wear and tear in his knees, he was still in top gear after almost 400 minutes in the trenches. 8
MATT HOLLAND - 8
How ironic that one of Ireland's top three finals performers should have missed his penalty at the death. High energy levels combined with crisp tackling and distribution enabled Holland to scale unprecedented heights at international level. Can any top Premiership club afford to ignore him now?
KEVIN KILBANE - 7
Ashen-faced, eyes focused on the floor, he trooped in stony silence through the mixed zone. His penalty miss was all the more harrowing because he'd been slotting them in at training for fun. At least he forced Casillas to make a fair save. Nice guys don't always win.
ROBBIE KEANE - 9
With three goals, two of them in the final moments of games, Keane's sense of occasion burned brightly through the finals. He may be a showman but his is a natural talent you can't buy over the counter. If only he could have taken all five Irish penalties.
DAMIEN DUFF - 9
His modest, laid-back air off the pitch is in contrast to the electricity which fizzes when he's in possession. My player of the tournament for Ireland, though he played most of the four games in a position ill-suited to his extraordinary talents. Would a club worthy of his talents please snap him up soon? Good guy, genius footballer.
KENNY CUNNINGHAM - 7
Didn't expect to be pressed into action but when called, he responded in his calm, reassuring, way. Mopped up the loose stuff and looked at ease in his surroundings. Will replace Staunton for the Euro 2004 qualifiers.
NIALL QUINN - 8
Last man off the park as he said farewell to the fans. Got a bigger kick out of the finals than he thought possible as his influence directly changed the course of three games. A key player off the park too as he helped keep the team focused when things were tense over the Keane affair. Thank s for the memories, Niall.
DAVID CONNOLLY - 6
Could have been the hero with a left-foot curler in extra-time which had Casillas scurrying to his right. First man to volunteer for a penalty so you couldn't fault his courage but his effort was poorly struck.
MICK MCCARTHY - 8
On balance, made more right calls than not although some will question the rationale behind starting Damien Duff up front when he wreaked utter havoc on the wing for the second night in a row. Could Niall Quinn not have started? Throwing David Connolly on ahead of Clinton Morrison was also debatable but switching to 3-4-3 paid off right at the death for the second time in the tournament. His team, his players, his staff did all he asked of them and more.