Ireland look to end ten years of hurt

by Sean Bell

Friday, June 3rd, 2011
 

Fresh from their triumph in the underwhelming Nations Cup, Ireland face a crucial test away to Macedonia in Skopje on Saturday evening. Going into the match Ireland are level with Russia and Slovakia on ten points so with half of the matches remaining to be played, all three sides stand an excellent chance of qualifying for next year’s finals in Poland and Ukraine.

 

Ireland beat Macedonia 2-1 in their previous qualifying match at the rechristened Lansdowne Road (or the Aviva Stadium as we must now call it, although part of me wishes that it was the Norwich Union Bowl and that Alan Partridge had presided over the ceremonial opening). It was a scrappy performance in which Ireland took an early two-goal lead against a poor Macedonian team with an even poorer goalkeeper before conceding on the stroke of half-time. The second half was an execrable affair but fortunately Ireland held on for the three points. With Russia drawing earlier in the day away to Armenia this meant that the advantage gained by their 3-2 victory at the Aviva last October was lost and that Ireland could instead look forward to the second round of matches on level terms with their closest rivals.

 

Ireland have failed to qualify for a finals tournament since the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. In the qualifying tournament for the 2004 Euros they lost their crucial last game to Switzerland to finish behind them and Russia, a disappointment matched in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers when a 1-0 home defeat to France proved crucial and they finished behind the French, Switzerland, and Israel. After a particularly disastrous qualifying campaign for the 2008 Euros under Steve ‘Stan’ Staunton in which the mighty Cyprus thrashed them 5-2, the FAI appointed the legendary Giovanni Trapattoni in his place.

 

‘Trap’ quickly fashioned an obdurate Irish side who were difficult to beat, and Ireland did not lose a single group match in the qualifying tournament for the 2010 World Cup. Of course we all know what happened in the play-off against France, a result which pleased the former president of the World Society of Friends of Suspenders Sepp Blatter more than being locked in a hosiery factory overnight.

 

Apart from the home defeat to Russia in which the Irish defence took the evening off, Trapattoni’s side have continued to look solid during the current qualification campaign. There are also encouraging signs of the Republic’s increasing strength in depth throughout the squad. When Shay Given was missing from the side through injury against Macedonia, his deputy Kieren Westwood proved why he is one of the most highly coveted goalkeepers in England with a vital second half save. Upfront the hugely underrated Kevin Doyle’s first-half injury saw him replaced by the highly promising Reading striker Shane Long.

 

There are also reminders of the glory days of Irish football under Jack Charlton with Anglo-Irish (or in Tony Cascarino’s case Anglo-Italian) players like Jamie O’Hara and Jermaine Pennant declaring their intentions to play for the Republic. In order to ensure that this is a new golden age for the nation’s football team they first have to qualify however. If there is one fault that can be levelled against Trapattoni it is that his side draws too many games. Three points on Saturday will be the perfect way to address this failing and move his side closer to a memorable summer next year.

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