By Dermot Clarke
At the start of the day Saturday we were looking for a victory of two goals or more against Turkey in the first of Ireland’s two-legged Euro 2000 playoff series. Then 15 minutes before the kick off we heard the news. Niall Quinn wasn’t going to make it and he would be replaced by Tony Cascarino. We would settle for 1-0.
Maradona, McGrath, Matthaus, Voeller, Giles and Aldridge to name but a few, played international football into, and sometimes past, their mid-30s. They all had one thing in common, at age 25 they were, each of them, world class.
As a 25-year-old, Tony Cascarino wasn’t considered good enough for the Irish team. Now, as a 37-year-old, he is deemed worthy of selection to play in one of the most important games in our history. When big Cas declared his eligibility for the team, the joke was that he qualified because his grandfather had a fish and chip shop in Dublin, but it’s not funny any more. We may not have the talent available that we had 12 years ago, but there must be someone better out there than Cascarino the ’99 version.
Gary Breen, as predicted, started the game and, in fairness, he had one of his better outings in a green shirt — he was mediocre. Roy Keane found out what it was like to be Liam Brady. Brady suffered at the international level because he was "the name" on the team. Not recognizing any of the other central players on the team-sheet, the Turks singled out the Manchester United m’stro and he wasn’t allowed the space to create as a result. He found the responsibility of carrying three rookies on his ample shoulders tough also, but he still ran his heart out for the cause.
Kevin Kilbane and Rory Delap started brightly, flanking Keane. Kilbane could have had two goals on a better day, fortune wise. Delap too, began well, but he faded into obscurity and was shown mercy after 52 minutes when McCarthy replaced him with Damien Duff.
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Lee Carsley, the other midfielder, had a dismal day. Little went right for him, and to top it all it was he who gave away the penalty that was to give Turkey parity and, more important, an away goal to bring home to Bursa.
The Turks were good value for the draw. For much of the game they looked like the home team. They controlled the middle of the park and at times it was as though they were playing with us. We knew though, as long as we had a man capable of the extraordinary up front, there was a chance. Robbie Keane was that man. David Connolly came in for Cascarino and suddenly there was life.
In the 78th minute Denis Irwin won the ball from Arif — the man who had destroyed Northern Ireland with the fastest hat trick in international history — Connolly and Keane set off, Connolly went left, Keane dodged right. The Corkman found Connolly, who in turn found Keane, and the young Tallaght man finished in the style of a world-class striker, a style necessary on the day, for it was only a piece of such magic that would beat the Turkish keeper on the day.
Indeed, Rustu Recber was Man of the Match. The Fenerbahce custodian is a pure acrobat. His two saves from Kilbane alone would have won him the award. The first, when he pulled the ball out of the top corner, after the West Brom man had cut inside and curled a shot that looked like providing the opener. The second, from point-blank range after Kilbane struck a Cascarino knock-down with great ferocity toward the net.
But Keane finally beat him and we were 1 nil up. We would have settled for that, but, as so often is the case with the Republic of Ireland soccer team, things were about to change. Turkey were awarded a penalty when Lee Carsley was adjudged to have handled in the area. Carsley seemed to be trying to get to his feet when the ball struck his arm. It wasn’t a bad decision, but I doubt that Anders Frisk would award us one in the same circumstance in front of the partisan Turks. He is an insurance manager by profession, so his life is probably well covered, even so I’d wager we’d see a wave of the hand. Tayfur knocked home the spot kick, beating Dean Kiely, who had come in for the injured Alan Kelly.
Robbie Keane was then booked for dissent and the one man capable of scoring in the away leg is now lost for the game. The first half lasted 45 minutes and 22 seconds, the second was to get four minutes extra; the referee ended it two seconds into the fifth minute. If that had happened in Macedonia, there would have been no need for all this, we would have qualified as winners of the group.
Now we must travel to Turkey with Ararat to climb. We travel without one of the species Keane. We travel with the lesser of the goalkeeping species Kelly. Gary will come in to replace his injured brother, Alan. We travel having broken the golden commandment of two-legged ties — Thou shalt not concede a goal at home We pray that Niall Quinn recovers in time and we know that a miracle is needed if we are to qualify for Euro 2000.
And if we have a mountain to climb well, then consider the poor Scots. They travel down to London for the second leg against England, two goals down. Paul Scholes scored twice as Hampden Park to leave the Scots with an almost impossible task. The Scots had their chances, but the truth is, this is not the greatest Scottish team we have ever seen, and though England are no great shakes either, they are stronger. Of the four countries that I saw on Saturday, only one of them would have a chance of going the distance in the championship proper. That country, alas, is Turkey.
The surprise of the day was Denmark’s 5-0 away win against Isr’l. Eyal Berkovic spoke during the week of the internal problems. The failure to select players that have abandoned the nation and gone in search of fame elsewhere. It is obvious that he was speaking the truth. At this stage of the competition, no team should lose the home leg by five goals.