At the time of going to press, the Irish were preparing to take on the Czech Republic in Prague, and anything other than victory there and the campaign would be as good as over.
Realistically, the team needed to beat Slovakia, and in fairness they came agonizingly close only conceding a goal in the very last minute. If the mission was that close to being accomplished, it was still yet another desperately frustrating failure of concentration that lead to the equalizer.
With substitute Jonathan Douglas caught stranded, and with John O’Shea making a poor attempt at a block, Marek Cech was allowed to shoot past Shay Given from 20 yards. When the story of this qualifying campaign is put to bed, that one moment will surely haunt manager Steve Staunton more than any other.
Staunton admitted afterwards that his players were “devastated” and that the dressing room was like a “morgue,” however, he also added bizarrely that he didn’t think that a draw was necessarily a bad result. “We know now what we have to do against the Czech Republic. We always had to win that game.”
Not true. A win against the Slovaks and a draw in Prague would have kept the show on the road, but you would have to feel now that whatever hope there was of grabbing one of the qualifying places behind Germany is gone.
And it had started so promisingly for Ireland last Saturday with midfielder Stephen Ireland ghosting in for the first goal after just seven minutes. The visitors could easily have gone two in front, however, the momentum soon swung Slovakia’s way as both Ireland and Aiden McGeady struggled to make any impression.
As the half panned out, the Irish were fortunate to be level 1-1 at the interval, but they began brightly once again and center forward Kevin Doyle raised hopes with a goal after a magnificent shot on the turn. However, the questions that had been raised by Staunton’s team selection were now even more pertinent as Ireland struggled to hold onto their lead.
They badly needed a perceptive passer such as Andy Reid, and they badly needed the energy of Stephen Hunt, yet Staunton thought otherwise and as McGeady and Ireland were withdrawn, 19-year-old Darron Gibson, who has never played a competitive international, and Douglas were sent in as subs.
Although goalkeeper Shay Given and Richard Dunne were outstanding at the back, there was always this sense that the Irish might be caught because of the frailties of Stephen Kelly and the inexperience of the subs. And so it was when Cech fired home with just seconds remaining.
“It felt like we lost,” said Doyle. Because the hope of an unlikely qualification slipped away with Slovakia’s equalizing goal, Doyle was more right than he knew.