By Dermot Clarke
Ireland coming away from Croatia with a point or more would have been daylight robbery on a par with the solar eclipse a few weeks back, that was always going to be the case. We knew that we would be without the services of Roy Keane and Denis Irwin. We knew that Robbie Keane wasn’t 100 percent, and we knew that we were away to the third best team in the world.
Mick McCarthy was always going to opt for a 4-5-1 formation and we were all aware of that also. But who would be the lone raider? Niall Quinn was the obvious choice. Maybe he would take a chance on Keane, perhaps the speedy Kevin Kilbane or maybe Connolly. Mick McCarthy selected Tony Cascarino and a nation gasped in collective disbelief. Ten years back, "Cas" was a decent option. At present he is the definitive last resort. No disrespect to the big man; he has given his all in the past, scored many vital goals, but he is not up to threatening one of the best defenses on the planet on his own.
A few years back, Cascarino’s only real claim to fame was that he helped make the world’s largest lasagne. Mick McCarthy has made him our most capped player and if he has his way, he’ll wind up top scorer also. Having said all that we would have forgotten about it if we got the draw, wouldn’t we?
From the time the first whistle blew, it was obvious that this was going to be a long game. Backs to the wall, with the wily Croats anxious to test Steve Staunton from the get-go. When the 90 minutes were up, almost a day later, though, we were beginning to reflect. Another great goalkeeping display by Alan Kelly. Kenny Cunningham, brilliant! Davor Who? Lee Carsley filling Roy Keane’s boots did well. Gary Kelly ran his heart out. Everyone did.
Then it happened, the fourth official showed five minutes of injury time was to be played. Here we go again. Injustice, France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Eoin Hand. It had to happen, and it did. In the fourth of the added on five, Cunningham was caught on the back foot, Suker got behind him, 1-0. The goal itself was taken brilliantly by a class striker, in fairness. The players should have been out of the shower at the time it was scored though. But we’re still there and it’s almost in our own hands too.
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The game versus Yugoslavia had everything. We got what we required, a win, but it was the way in which the victory was that was so satisfying from an Irish point of view. The game was played at a real pace. It was an Irish performance full of spirit and endeavor and when skill was required, it was there too. The two Irish goals were superb, particularly Robbie Keane’s. Keane made it look a lot easier than it was, the mark of a class striker. His instinct took him into the right position. "I knew Niall might get a flick on it," he said. His speed enabled him to get there first. His agility allowed him to twist enough to strike the ball into the corner of the goal that the keeper couldn’t cover in time, and because Keane was still running as he struck the ball, it hit the net before the Yugoslav could even think about a token effort to save.
Mark Kennedy wore Robbie’s shoes a few years hence, a youth with a great future, the most expensive teenager in the English game. He joined Liverpool from a Millwall team managed by Mick McCarthy. The Liverpool he joined couldn’t nurture youth quite like the side that a young Ronnie Whelan joined as a teen, though. Mark’s career went on the slide. McCarthy watched, probably in disbelief. Passing quickly through clubs, the slide seems to have ended at Manchester City, where the youngster has come back to himself a little. When he was selected to play against Yugoslavia, the buddy system was cited. Every minor error was greeted with a shake of the head by the naysayers. Then in a flash, he was a hero: an out-of-the-blue rocket, 25 yards, in off the crossbar, impossible to save, "You’ll never beat the Irish."
And so to Malta the battle weary Irish head and a must-win situation awaits them. A probable reversal of Saturday’s game, with the Maltese defending and our strike force probably increased by 100 percent. We will pray for an early goal to take the pressure off and if it doesn’t come the oral manicures will begin again. Malta almost upset Croatia in Zagreb, going down, as we did, by one goal. We should beat them, though, and my guess is that a win over Macedonia in the final game will take us to the finals. We will need our full complement for that one. I think we’ll do it, we do deserve it and we’ll forgive Mick McCarthy should it happen.
Scotland and Wales gave themselves a squeak with away wins over Bosnia and Belarus respectively. Northern Ireland fell at home 3-0 to Turkey and England must beat Poland today in order to gain a play-off spot. England thrashed Luxembourg 6-0 at Wembley on Saturday. Alan Shearer scored a hat-trick, and Steve McManaman got two, sums up Luxembourg that, does it not? Michael Owen entered the fray late on though and his goal in the final minute warranted the entrance fee. Keegan needs to eat the peach and find a spot for him today, else we may not see England at Euro 2000.
On Sunday, Yugoslavia beat bitter rivals Macedonia 3-1. Yugoslavia are the only nation that can better us points wise should we gain the maximum from our remaining two fixtures. They travel to Skopje to face Macedonia again today, however and with the final one being away to Croatia you would think points will be lost somewhere along the way. Here’s hoping.