By Mark Jones
Ireland 1, Portugal 1
DUBLIN — If Ireland’s manager, Mick McCarthy, had been asked if he would accept two draws before his team’s opening games in the battle for World Cup qualification, he’d have laughed. Accept two draws — he’d have killed for them. Unexpectedly, he got the first in Holland last month and then, even more unexpectedly, he got the second last Saturday in Portugal.
Ireland’s 1-1 stalemate was certainly a lucky result given that the Portuguese, semifinalists in last summer’s European championships, were the dominant force for much of the game. But after the two most demanding games in the group, McCarthy and his players have kept an unbeaten record. The Promised Land of qualification for World Cup finals in 2002 now seems much closer.
Trailing 1-0 in Lisbon with 20 minutes remaining, the Irish had to come up with something special to save the match. They did, and the source of the prized goal was as surprising as the final result. McCarthy had sent on midfielder Matt Holland as a halftime substitute for Niall Quinn and completely against the run of play, Holland smashed a stunning 35-yard shot into the Portuguese net.
Without question, Holland had been sent on by the manager to shore up the midfield area, his brief was never to score a goal in a million. So it was no tactical masterstroke as McCarthy readily admitted.
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"I knew when I brought on Matt Holland there would be criticism," McCarthy said. "I actually told him to stay back and I’ve already had a joke with him that I don’t want him getting forward like that again."
With Roy Keane turning up 24 hours after the rest of the squad assembled — a thigh injury was the explanation, but McCarthy was the last to know — it seemed that the team captain was playing by another set of rules. Before the previous game against Holland, Phil Babb and Mark Kennedy had both been thrown out of the team when they were arrested late at night in Dublin, and on this occasion, there was a supposed "war" between Keane and McCarthy.
To add to the tension, Keane came out and stated that he thought Babb and Kennedy should both be back in the squad, and that they had served their punishment. Another challenge to the manager? Certainly, the tabloid Evening Herald thought so, trumpeting that relations between manager and captain had broken down.
"All that’s happened," responded McCarthy defiantly, "relations with the media have been tainted. To get back to business, we have two points from two tough games, but that won’t mean didley squad if we don’t beat Estonia in the next game."
Confidence should be running high for today’s contest at Lansdowne Road against the Estonians. However, there wasn’t too much confidence in the Irish camp when Sergio Conceicao cut in from the right to score early in the second half. It was no more than Portugal deserved as they had been on top for nearly all the game. Ireland had defended well with Richard Dunne adding to his reputation after his excellent performance against the Dutch, and Mark Kinsella had been the pick of the midfielders alongside a subdued Roy Keane.
Notwithstanding the result, and Holland’s marvelous goal, this was nowhere near as convincing a team effort as the one in Amsterdam. McCarthy and his players got a lucky break and they took it.