By Jay Mwamba
The grins, backslaps and hugs on the bench after the final whistle left little doubt that Ireland’s coaching staff had no complaints with this outcome in the opening match of Republic’s 2002 World Cup campaign, given the events of the last two weeks.
Matt Holland, who put in a yeoman’s effort in midfield, was the Irish savior on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon before 34,000 fans at the 42,000-capacity Niigata Stadium. He fired in a low drive in the 52nd minute to cancel out Patrick Mboma’s 39th-minute strike for the African champions.
The result, while temporarily putting the Roy Keane affair to rest, kept the Republic in the running for a second round berth, regardless of this morning’s result against the rampant Germans.
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But it was also a measure of vindication for coach Mick McCarthy after the bitter recriminations unleashed by his decision to expel fiery skipper Roy Keane from the squad.
Defeat would have surely opened up another can of worms for the embattled boss, and for 45 minutes that seemed to be the likely outcome as the “Indomitable Lions” looked the more threatening side.
There was a lot of early sparring but no real chances until the 19th minute when a brilliant one-two between the fleet-footed Samuel Eto’o and Mboma tore the Irish defense asunder, giving Eto’o a clear path to goal.
However, Shay Given, winning his 38th full international cap, was quick off his line to block the shot.
Ireland, who struggled to create chances on the ground despite the best efforts of the Damien Duff, were most dangerous in the air.
In the 22nd minute a Robbie Keane header went less than a yard wide at the far post following a corner. Moments later, Gary Breen put the ball over the bar from another corner.
The Irish dodged a bullet when an Eto’o lob bounced dangerously across the goalmouth.
By now, Eto’o, who’s 21, was clearly causing havoc in the Irish defense with his speed. After 39 minutes, his deadly partnership with Mboma finally paid off in the 40th minute when he took a pass from Geremi Njitap on the edge of the box and raced toward the by-line with 33-year-old Irish skipper Steve Staunton in pursuit.
Eto’o suddenly turned, leaving Staunton on the ground, before cutting the ball back to Mboma. The big forward shot into the net with Given exposed at the near post.
Following Senegal’s cue from the previous night’s 1-0 upset over France, the Lions celebrated by doing an African jig around Eto’o’s jersey strewn on the ground by the corner flag.
The Lions’ jubilation was nearly cut short before halftime when Cameroon’s burly captain, Rigobert Song, nearly turned Harte’s grass-cutter from a free kick into his own net.
In the dressing room, McCarthy, with Roy Keane at the back of his mind, gave his troops a stirring pep rally to avert the unthinkable.
“I told them two things as a group,” he later said to reporters. “First, we hadn’t done two years hard work to get to the finals and waste it all in the first match.
“Secondly, I pointed out to them that in the stadium there was a sign which read ‘no regrets’ and I said to them, ‘Lose this and you will have plenty of them.’ ”
McCarthy also made one change, pulling off Jason McAteer, who was struggling with a knee injury suffered in a training match, for defender Steve Finnan.
Ireland, unbeaten for two years before dropping a 2-1 decision to Cameroon’s great rivals Nigeria in a Dublin friendly three weeks ago, came out with renewed purpose.
A Kevin Kilbane header flashed past the post (49th), and Harte nearly gifted Cameroon a second goal when he lost the ball to Geremi outside the box, as both teams made a lively start to the second half.
Then Holland struck. He pounced on a weak clearance by big center half Raymond Kalla and hammered an excellent shot past the despairing grasp of goalie Boukar.
The goal, the 28-year-old Holland’s fourth in 18 appearances, lifted the Irish. They stepped up the pace and came close to getting a second on three occasions only to be denied by Boukar.
First, Boukar made a heart-stopping save on the line from a Keane header that came off Song (63rd), then Keane cracked a shot off the upright (83rd) with the goalie motionless, before substitute Stephen Reid had a fierce effort parried over the bar.
On the other end, Cameroon’s best chance to steal it came in the 66th minute when Eto’o latched onto a flick-on and shot wide with Given at his mercy.
McCarthy was delighted at seeing the Republic show no effects from the Roy Keane affair and overcome a poor first half to force a draw.
“I thought we were magnificent in the second half and that we probably deserved to win it in the end,” he said. “However, we have to produce two similar performances if we are to go through to the second round.
“We gave them too much space in the first half, but in the second I thought Matty [Holland] and Mark [Kinsella] were magnificent and I don’t mean that as a slight to Roy.”
A disappointed Mboma concurred. “Certainly in the first half we could have put the game to sleep, but we didn’t and then the Irish came back with all the spirit and determination you expect of them,” he said.
Ireland: Shay Given, Gary Kelly, Steve Staunton, Ian Harte (Stephen Reid, 78), Gary Breen, Jason McAteer (Steve Finnan, 46), Matt Holland, Kevin Kilbane, Mark Kinsella, Damien Duff, Robbie Keane.
Cameroon: Alioum Boukar, Raymond Kalla, Rigobert Song, Bill Tchato, Geremi Njitap, Pierre Wome, Marc-Vivien Foe, Salomon Olembe, Lauren Etame Mayer, Samuel Etoo, Patrick Mboma (Patrick Suffo, 69).