By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — Ireland were seconds away from securing a precious automatic place in the European soccer championship finals last Saturday when Macedonia struck with a heartbreaking equalizer to consign the Irish to a playoff.
With Yugoslavia and Croatia drawing 2-2 in Zagreb, a 1-0 victory in Skopje would have left Mick McCarthy and his players celebrating at the top of their qualifying group. But with an agonizing 12 seconds left before the referee’s final whistle, Goran Stavreski headed home the killer goal.
The result means that Yugoslavia are on their way to the Euro 2000 finals while Ireland will know their playoff opponents after today’s draw.
McCarthy will probably want to avoid the likes of England, Scotland, Denmark and Turkey, who have also been forced to go the playoff route. The prospects for qualification would be boosted if one of Slovenia, Ukraine or Isr’l came out of the hat for next month’s two-game series.
"I don’t pretend that we haven’t made things difficult for ourselves by not beating Macedonia," admitted McCarthy, who has agreed a two-year extension of his contract, "but at least we’re still in the competition. Despite the quality of the teams in the playoffs, I believe we’re capable of doing well against any of them on a home and away basis."
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Although the Irish badly missed Roy Keane in Skopje, they looked on course for automatic qualification when Niall Quinn scored following a corner early in the first half. Quinn’s first effort appeared to hit a defender’s hand, but he made no mistake with the rebound, to lift his total of international goals to 19, one behind Frank Stapleton’s all-time record.
With Mark Kennedy adding composure to his undoubted skill on the left wing and with Quinn a constant threat to the Macedonian defense, there didn’t seem to be any reason to anticipate the drama of the last seconds.
But instead of forcing the pace, the Irish were prepared to concede almost half the pitch and the longer the game went on, the more Macedonia pressed forward. McCarthy made the bizarre decision of substituting the outstanding Kennedy with seven minutes left and suddenly the home team were in total control as goalkeeper Alan Kelly was forced to make two brilliant saves.
Going into injury time, it seemed as if Ireland were going to hold out, but Straveski arrived unmarked at a corner to head past Kelly. At the beginning of the qualification road, McCarthy probably would have accepted second place in a such a demanding group. However, when his team was so near, the result felt like a defeat.