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Irish Soccer Team – 1994-2002
Mick McCarthy was appointed Ireland manager after Charlton narrowly missed out on leading Ireland to the Euro 96 final in England. In an emotional night that was to be Charlton’s last in charge, the Irish fell to a two-nil defeat to the Dutch in the play-offs. The team was now in transition, an aging team had to make way for youth and the long ball game had to give way to the now worldwide pass and move philosophy. McCarthy’s job was to steady the ship and build on past successes. Unfortunately, its immediate impact did not produce the desired result. The Irish failed to qualify for two more tournaments, the World Cup in France 1998 and the Euros in Belgium and the Netherlands 2000. With some dismal performances in both qualifying campaigns, although again narrowly missing out on both tournaments, it was a dismal period for Ireland. football until qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.
In a qualifying table that included Portugal and Holland, the Irish showed the fighting spirit of a previous era. With a mix of some old stalwarts and youthful exuberance, the team wasn’t overwhelmed. They finished second in the group on the same points as winners Portugal and advanced to the World Cup finals after a tie with Iran. The qualifiers represented arguably the best game ever played at Lansdowne Road, not because of the flair or the flurry of goals, but because of the drama. This match was against the Dutch, a nerve-racking, nail-biting match that will never be forgotten by anyone who was there or just watched in pubs across the country. To set the scene, the Dutch needed to win the match to keep their hopes alive, the Irish could not afford to lose. The Dutch team was full of superstars of the day, the De Boer brothers, Van Der Sar, Kluivert, Stam, Davids, Van Nistelrooy and Seedorf. The Irish were underdogs with a capital “U”. They managed a 2-2 away draw against the Dutch, a remarkable result, but could they really stop the Dutch from reaching the World Cup final?
If the Irish didn’t believe they didn’t show it spurred on by the world’s best midfielder Roy Keane, he didn’t let the Dutchman breathe, never mind pass the ball, arguably his greatest performance in a green shirt. Perhaps it was too much looseness that caused the only moment of silence in this game, when Gary Kelly was shown a red card. Marc Overmars rounding Kelly in the first half led to the Irishman being booked, the second half started first and thirteen minutes in again with a reckless tackle on Overmars as Kelly saw his second yellow of the game followed by the dreaded red. The Irish fans were disheartened but not silenced, the team holding on for a goalless draw, even as the Dutch missed chance after chance, it seemed only a matter of time. Shay Given was lucky not to concede a penalty when he appeared to beat Van Nistelrooy, who surely would have had a simple tap.
However, there came a moment that few have the privilege of seeing in a football match. In the 67th minute, Ireland got their first tally of the half, Roy Keane led the charge, strong on the ball, fouled, ball breaks to Duff, referee waves, plays ball wide to Finnan, tackles Coco from right, forced back to left side, crosses to the far post and somehow it breaks to an unmarked Jason McAteer, who on the half-volley flicks the ball past the formidable Van Der Sar. A moment and Lansdowne’s roar had never been heard so loudly. Ireland fought for their lives for 23 and a few minutes and ended up with a nil win. As the final whistle blew, the Irish fans burst into a chorus of “Ten men and we beat the Dutch”, few wanted to leave the stadium that day, even the Dutch fans who played their part in the remarkable atmosphere applauded as they did. he witnessed something special.
The 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan began as a patronage. After a qualifying campaign of mostly highs, the World Championship brought a big low even before it started. The Irish team showed great unity, determination and spirit that characterized the Dutch game, the training camp in Saipan brought disunity and literally tore the hearts out of the team. A training ground standoff involving Roy Keane and some of the coaching staff has been blown out of proportion. A critical Irish newspaper article by Keane and a team meeting that looked like a shambolic piece of management by McCarthy led to the man considered the best midfielder in the world, Roy Keane, being sent home. The attention of the world media has now focused on the Ireland team, but for all the wrong reasons. Everyone had an opinion on the question and players, media and fans were divided into two camps, those who believed McCarthy was right to send Keane home and those who supported Keane in his comments about the Irish set-up. Keane said the Irish lacked professionalism in all aspects of their World Cup build-up, with more heated exchanges apparently taking place behind the scenes that led to Keane’s dismissal. Although politicians were even called in to solve the problem, Keane stayed at his Manchester home and Ireland began the World Cup without their best player.
Whatever people say about what happened on Saipan, and many have and will have their opinions, it is clear that the two men should have been able to resolve whatever personal differences they had between them for the more important matter at hand .
The Irish faced Cameroon in the first match of the group stage. From the first whistle, a strong, physical Cameroon team entered the game. Samuel Etoo led the way up front and his breakthrough on the right side of the Irish defense led to the opening goal. Skipping Staunton’s pass and leaving him on the back foot, he stepped into the penalty area and squared the ball to Mbom, who placed the ball into the gaping goal. Ireland were able to regroup and equalize in the second half when Matt Holland (Keane’s substitute) struck a powerful shot into the bottom right corner of the net. An opening draw of the campaign and some relief that the team did not capitulate under undue pressure leading up to the game.
Next up were the ever-resilient Germans. The Germans, while lacking the ability of previous teams, could never be written off. In the 19th minute, they took the lead with a goal by Klose. However, after going one nil up, Germany sat back and tried to build on their lead. In a poor game, but another determined performance, Ireland equalized in the 92nd minute. A long ball to Niall Quinn (reminiscent of the old days), he headed into the box and was caught by Robbie Keane who slotted the ball into the corner of the net. Another memorable moment as Ireland now needed to beat Saudi Arabia to qualify for the next round.
They did it in the third match of the group. After some nervous moments early in the game, Ireland won the game 3-0 with goals from Robbie Keane, Gary Breen and Damien Duff. They may not have been at their best against the Saudis, but the result saw them advance to the second round.
The second round was a sensational draw with Spain. The Spaniards made a bright start to the final with three wins from three and most of them were comfortable, twice 3-1. So when Fernando Morientes headed in after just eight minutes, it looked grim. However, the Spanish began to sit back and the Irish threw everything they had at the Spanish defences. You could see that the defense was cracking under the pressure and it did in the 62nd minute, Damien Duff fouled in the penalty area, penalty. Ian Harte… Casillas saves. The Irish luck seemed to be running out until the most unlikely of events happened, in the ninety second minute Robbie Keane was brought down in the box, another penalty. This time Robbie Keane stepped up…GOAL!
The match ended 1:1 and overtime began. In further twists and turns, Spain finished the match with nine men on the pitch, not because of ill-discipline but because of injury. Although it looked like Ireland were more likely, they failed to enforce their two-man advantage. This would be a fatal mistake as the penalty shootout resulted in Spain winning. The Irish once again gave it their all and their supporters admired them for it.
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