By Dermot Clarke
You’ve got to feel good for Niall Quinn. The likable Irish striker has had to deal with the heartache of relegation with both Manchester City and Sunderland in the last few years. Add to that the despair of playoff defeat and throw in the odd career-threatening injury and you have the unfortunate lot that was Niall’s prior to about a month ago when the big man’s fortunes took a turn for the better.
Sunderland sailed away with the first division title and Quinn played no small part. The squad looks a lot stronger than the one that took the drop; don’t expect to see them in the lifeboat zone of the premiership. Their place, I have always felt, is in the premier division, if only for the wonderful geordie support.
So it was a radiant Quinn who took the field for Ireland last Wednesday evening for the game against Macedonia. They had led the group briefly, having surprisingly taken a point from World Cup semfinalists Croatia, but in reality, Macedonia are seen as the fourth team in this group. Indeed, the former Yugoslav republic have had only one boast since they entered the world footballing ranks as a nation and that is their fans hold the record in the longest chant category: you know the one, it begins "give us an M and ends "give us an "A" what have we got? Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia." That said the Republic fielded several novices for this one, and were without Roy Keane, always a major worry. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy and we had an idea it wouldn’t be pretty.
The game was 15 minutes old when Quinn scored for the first time. Over at Leopardstown race course, Kevin Manning was booting home Quinn’s horse — The Bomber Liston — named, coincidentally, after another prolific scorer, Eoin "Bomber" Liston, the former Kerry GAA great. A half hour later, Quinn and his Irish teammates walked off the pitch having failed to breach the 10-man defense of Macedonia. It was 0-0 at the half, Ireland had gone close on several occasions, but the longer these type of games go on, the more frustrating they become, so when Quinn scored in the 65th minute, a collective sigh of relief was the immediate greeting. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t contrived on the training pitch, it was just another important Niall Quinn goal.
With 25 minutes remaining, and the all-important first one in the bag, we hoped for, and had every right, I suppose, to expect a couple more. Robbie Keane himself almost gave us a couple before the "Lansdowne Road fright." Mircvski got loose, but, having lobbed Alan Kelly, he saw his effort strike the top of the crossbar.
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Thereafter, the Macedonians went, and were allowed to go, in search of an equalizer. It didn’t come, they didn’t deserve it. Quinn’s goal was enough on the day, and Mark Kinsella was voted Man of the Match. We now go joint top with Yugoslavia, but changes will need to be made for the probable game against Yugoslavia, and the game against Croatia. Gary Breen doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid. He was praised by many after the game. I really don’t know why. His passing was poor and he all too often misdirects his headers. He gave way the only goal that we have conceded thus far in this competition. Phil Babb is no great option, but he is a better player than Breen. Mark Kennedy played well against Macedonia — but it was against Macedonia; he seems to have lost it a little along the way. And why does Damien Duff always look like he’s playing his fifth match of the day when he plays for Ireland?
We need Roy Keane very badly indeed, and if Mick McCarthy really wants Tony Cascarino to break all the records, he should organize a couple of friendly games against Burkina Faso or Belize. I know that he nearly scored and I know he has been a great servant, but in all fairness, the Nancy-boy has had his day. He has been a substitute since 1990, give him a break Mick.
With a loaded gun, you can always count on Scotland to shoot themselves slap-bang in the center of the instep. After doing all the hard work in gaining a point against the lofty Faroe Islands, Scotland went 2-0 up away to the Czechs, alas they still manage to lose 3-2. The Czechs now become the first team to qualify for the finals proper.
An Alan Shearer goal, a rarity this, wasn’t enough to give England a much-needed victory against a spent Bulgarian side. The game ended 1-1, it was the last International for the great Stoichkov, who brought along his former Barcelona boss Johan Cruyff as a guest. Johan wasn’t impressed with England. He rated them no better than "poor." England must now go to Poland and win if they are to pick up a playoff spot.
French almost fried
Brian Clough once said that a minute in football is a long time. It was a statement borne out by Manchester United on a couple of notable occasions this year. A year in the game must be like an eternity, especially to France. Last year, they won the World Cup by sweeping aside Brazil in the most one-sided final since Brazil themselves beat Italy, 4-1, in 1970. Last week, the French went to Barcelona — on the heels of a rare home defeat by Russia — to face tiny Pyrenean neighbors Andorra.
With five minutes to go in the game, it was still scoreless. A shock akin to the U.S. victory over England in the 1950 World Cup was on the cards. The "Sacre-Bleu" and "Quelle Surprise" headlines had already been pasted on the French dailies, when after a hand-ball in "Andorra’s box," the French were awarded a penalty. Up stepped Chelsea’s Frank Leboeuf to save the blushes. Emmanuel Petit said the fact that they had a man sent off (Dugarry after 24 minutes) and they faced a 10-man defense had a lot to do with the score. Really Emmanuel? This was Andorra, where owning a pair of football boots would almost be enough to guarantee you a regular spot on the team. The French are in a bit of trouble.
Sir Alex, etc.
Alex Ferguson has been given the Manchester Beat Everybody award. Tony Blair intervened to make sure that the MBE was awarded to Ferguson in the queen’s birthday honors list. He has also signed a three-year contract at United said to be worth a cool five million. I suppose, then, it’s a real case of Arise, Sir Alex!
Kenny Dalglish and John Barnes are headed for Celtic. Barnes in a coaching capacity and Dalglish in a, well we’ll have to wait and see, won’t we? Sydney’s Olympic Stadium was opened on Saturday last with a game between Australia and a FIFA 11. The Socceroos won by 3-2 before 88,000 fans. The Australians are an emerging soccer nation and they deserved the victory, according to Roy Hodgson, who was looking after the FIFA side on the day. With United’s Mark Bosnich, Celtics Viduka, Harry Kewell of Leeds, Stan Lazaridis of West Ham among the ranks, it’s easy to see what he means. The Socceroos it seems, are about to bounce onto the scene.