By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — Losing and not having to care says a lot about where the Republic of Ireland soccer team finds itself at the moment. Manager Mick McCarthy and his players could afford to end up on the wrong side of a 1-0 scoreline in Iran last week and still qualify for the 2002 World Cup finals.
Given the modest pool of talent he has to choose from, and given the sheer quality of the qualifying group the Irish had to extricate themselves from, McCarthy’s is a staggering achievement. One that surpasses Jack Charlton’s journeys to Italia ’90 and to the United States four years later.
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Charlton had better players; McCarthy has Roy Keane, the budding ability of Robbie Keane and that’s about it. The rest would be regarded as hod carriers by the architects of world soccer such as Brazil, Argentina and France.
And for the second leg of the playoff Thursday in Tehran, McCarthy couldn’t even call on Roy Keane, whose knee injury continues to be a worry. However, his team, which was also without Niall Quinn, Stephen Carr and Damien Duff, withstood the cacophony of 110,000 fervent Iranian supporters in the Azadi Stadium. Armed with a 2-0 advantage from the first leg at Lansdowne Road, the Irish did enough to book the prized passage to next year’s finals in Japan and South Korea.
After his previous failures in playoffs for both the World Cup and the European championship finals, this success is McCarthy’s vindication. In the past, the mistakes were all too obvious, whereas in this campaign the glitches have been insignificant, with the end more than justifying the means.
Even though Iran were sloppy and undisciplined in last week’s second game, there was a will and a self-belief about the Irish that was striking. In the absence of Roy Keane, Mark Kinsella and Matt Holland were outstanding in midfield, and once again Jason McAteer repaid his manager’s faith with skill and extraordinary workrate.
Robbie Keane and David Connolly led the line with verve and determination, but as in the first leg, goalkeeper Shay Given came up with the game’s defining moments. Twice at Lansdowne Road he had denied Iran with top-quality saves, and there were three more vital stops to savor in Tehran. Without Given’s agility and temperament, it might have all gone badly wrong for McCarthy.
Iran’s winning goal came in the closing minutes, a momentary scare, but no more. In the past, there would have been legitimate worries over whether McCarthy’s players had the belief to play out the remaining seconds — now, his team is marked by a steely determination.
As the Iranian supporters grew more and more impatient with their side, missiles rained down on the pitch. On a scale of intimidation, it wouldn’t have been at the highest level, but a team with less character might have capitulated.
“We’re going to the World Cup, there’s nothing to compare with it,” McCarthy said. “That’s why you get oranges and coins and bottles and fireworks thrown at you.”
Certainly, the man who has captained, and who will now manage, Ireland at a World Cup finals has some serious thinking to before next May. Can he find an additional striker if Quinn’s back injury rules him out of the tournament? Can he strengthen the center of the defense, which is currently manned by the veteran Steve Staunton? Will he have a fit Roy Keane in his squad?
It could be that the real work has already been done, the real accomplishment in the bag. Reaching those finals is a pinnacle in McCarthy’s managerial career — any success in Japan and South Korea will be all the more remarkable. Given the players at Ireland’s disposal, it is hard to envision a repeat of say, Italia ’90, when the team reached the quarterfinals.
Today, there is no Paul McGrath, no Ray Houghton, no John Aldridge and no Denis Irwin. What’s more, Quinn and Roy Keane have fitness difficulties. Right now, the only thing to do is luxuriate in the achievement because, after all, the Irish and their supporters will be traveling, while Holland, one of the world’s soccer superpowers, will watching on TV.
Now there’s a thought to warm the winter.