By Dermot Clarke
The Irish Times website, has been offering, of late, literary bloomers from prominent names within the game. The latest of these comes from erstwhile Newcastle coach and former England boss Bobby Robson. Bobby, in his wisdom tells us that in football "the first 90 minutes are the most important." Try telling Mick McCarthy that, Bob, he won’t believe you. It seems that, in the region known as the Balkans anyway, the statement does not apply.
The Republic of Ireland were on the verge of gaining a very creditable nil-nil result against Croatia, when, late in the 94th minute of the game, Davor Suker struck to give his team victory, and keep them very much in the hunt in the quest for a spot in Euro 2000. Then, on Saturday, the boys in green looked set for automatic qualification for the event. Niall Quinn had given us an early lead in Skopje, Macedonia. It was a lead we might have built upon, it was a lead we might have lost were it not for the safe handling of our custodian ,Alan Kelly, but it was a lead that we held until, again, late in the 94th minute of the game.
It was then that disaster struck once again, this time in the shape of Goran Stavrevski, who headed home a corner to give his team a point and leave us to wait for a playoff game that we must win in order to travel to the lowlands of Belgium and Holland next year.
We had thought our woes were over when, in the 88th minute, after another brilliant save, the referee had penalized an act of deceit by Macedonian striker Georgi Hristov. Hristov fisted the ball home clearly and, thankfully, this time the referee agreed with the appeals of the Irish team and the away support, Georgi was dealt the yellow card and we thought, "That’s it." But Goran Stavrevski had other ideas though.
Stavrevski’s late strike was greeted with such frantic celebration that one would have been forgiven for thinking that the Macedonians themselves had crept into the competition by some newly erected back-door themselves. It meant only that they had denied the Republic the right to qualification as group winners. We now join England and Scotland in the playoffs and must wait to see if a seeding arrangement will keep us apart.
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Of the three countries, we undoubtedly put up the best performance in the qualifying effort, finishing second by a mere point to the strong Yugoslavs and ousting the World Cup bronze medalists Croatia into the bargain. Scotland finished second to the unbeatable Czech Republic and England had to sweat out the Sweden-Poland fixture, hope for a Swedish victory, which was achieved, that would see them finish above the Poles on goal difference.
In the World Cup of 1978, Welsh referee Clive Thomas gained notoriety when he blew his final whistle in the Brazil-Sweden tie. With the game tied at 1-1 and the ball en-route toward the Sweden goal from the head of Zico, Thomas blew his whistle and bedlam ensued. Many feel he should have waited for the set piece situation to be played out. Truth is, though, that Thomas is probably the only ref in history to have played to the rule in this situation. When Suker sickened us in Croatia, a minute-plus remained in the five minutes extra that the fourth official told us was to be played.
When Alan Kelly saved brilliantly at the concession of a corner against Macedonia, 30 seconds over the extra three minutes had already elapsed and that should have been it. Spanish referee Juan Antonio Marin, however, decided to allow the corner to be taken and we all know what happened next. And the palpitations were to continue.
By the time we were switched over to the Yugoslav-Croatia game, it had been almost 95 minutes (playing time) since the start of our game in Skopje. Yet almost three minutes still remained in this game that was due to end at the same time. With the game delicately poised at 2-2, we knew that a Croatian goal would put us out. We had to endure three minutes extra here also, but at the end and with a Yugoslav writhing in mock pain on the ground for almost 30 seconds of the added on time the referee blew a couple of seconds after the three minutes were up. All these circumstances considered, we only have ourselves to blame for the position we find ourselves in today. When we go a goal up against the Macedonias of this world, we should be capable of putting them away and not resign ourselves to keeping them at bay.
And so we wait for our opposition in the playoffs, a situation that has been unkind to us in the past. We pray for the availability of one Roy Keane and we keep our vacation options open for the Summer of 2000. I think that we will still get there. I hope that we are joined by our close neighbors England and Scotland. That being the case, the Euro 2000 championship may well be lit up by three very exciting young strikers. Our own Robbie Keane, the already World renowned Michael Owen of England, and Celtic’s burgeoning talent, Mark Burchill, who was given his chance against Lithuania at the weekend. The result meant little, but Burchill was very much involved in the three goals scored by Don Hutchison, Colin Cameron and Gary McSwegan. Young Burchill well and truly staked his claim and the 19-year-old will only get better.
‘The Doc’ dies
Last week saw the passing of Doctor Tony O’Neill.
"The Doc" died, after a short illness, at the age of 53. He was as much a part of the FAI renaissance as Brady, Stapleton or O’Leary. He brought his beloved UCD to League of Ireland status. A moment of silence was observed before their game with table toppers Shamrock Rovers on Sunday. The students paid the gentle giant great tribute by knocking off the Hoops 3-0. Peter Hanrahan and Owen Bennis (twice) scored the goals as the students told the doctor ,"We’ll never forget you," a sentiment echoed throughout Irish football.