By Dermot Clarke
It's been a long time since the Republic of Ireland began a home competitive game as distinct underdogs, but such was the case on Saturday as the Irish were quoted at 5-2 to overcome Croatia at Landsdowne Road.
Many would have it as being more recent, but I would think it was an autumn day in 1974 when the opposition was provided by the mighty Russia, that we could last obtain generous odds against an Irish home victory. It was a day that will live in the memory of all those in attendance for a long time, for it was on that day that a scraggy-haired youth from Whitehall named Liam Brady was introduced to the Republic's soccer population. The Arsenal youngster ran riot and a Don Given's hat trick saw the Russians mauled 3-0. The word Renaissance was used in many reports the next day.
Saturday's game resembled that contest in several ways. For one thing, the opponent was a powerful Eastern European side, the Croatians having lifted the bronze in last summer's World Cup. Also, the jury was still out on the Irish coach, Mick McCarthy, as it was in '74, when John Giles was at the helm. And, as we had been about Brady's debut, we were excited at the prospect of seeing another potential world-class player in action for the first time in the shape of Robbie Keane.
It was another Keane, though, Roy, who stole the show Saturday. Many Manchester United fans feel that they have a real chance of regaining their title, due to the summer signings of Jaap Stamm and Dwight Yorke. Truth is, though, that the behavior and well-being of Roy Keane will have a much greater bearing on United's title aspirations and indeed the progress of the Republic of Ireland He is as valuable to both causes as Viagra is to Ringaskiddy. He seems to strut around the pitch as if he is saving himself for a more important affair later on in the day, yet when help is needed at the back, he's there and when back-up is needed in attack, he's there also. There wasn't a blade of grass on the unusually plush Lansdsowne Road pitch that remained unturned by the boot of Roy Keane on Saturday. There's a tape recorded message that goes out over the Tannoy system about 4 minutes from the final whistle on every occasion that Keano don's the green, it goes something like this: "Ladies and Gentlemen the FAI/Opel Man of the Match award goes to Ireland's Roy Keane."
Saturday was an occasion that called for the experienced members of the squad to nurture, encourage and calm the youngsters, an early goal would help considerably. The entire package was provided by the oldest starter -- Dennis Irwin. His never-say-die approach won him a penalty after 4 minutes, when he battled his way into the Croatian box and was bundled over by the combined efforts of Simic and Jarni. Irwin waited for the Croatian antics to subside, before coolly slotting home the penalty himself. Early goal, nerves calmed. On 15, a Steve Staunton corner is cleared to the waiting Jason McAteer, his shot is deflected onto the head of Roy Keane, who finds the far corner of the net, 2-0.
A gentleman to my left tells me of his lifelong admiration for the people of Cork, while to my right the Croatian contingent scratch their collective heads in dread amaze.
Enter the Croatian cynicism that put paid to Laurent Blanc's chances of playing for the host nation France, in the World Cup Final. The diving and shirt tugging began in earnest as soon as Ireland went 2 up. Mario Stanic's dive probably lost him any chance he had of procuring a penalty kick when he stole behind the Irish rearguard on the half hour. There seemed to be contact with Shay Given as he went past the young keeper, but the Portuguese referee, Pereira, waved away his pleas when he catapulted himself to the turf in dramatic fashion.
Ireland started the second period two goals to the good and seemed happy enough to hold it there. There were scary moments in defense, notably a couple of errors from a still uncomfortable looking Phil Babb, that were almost costly. But we had our moments too, as substitute Lee Carsley had a cracking half-volley tipped over the bar before the impressive Charlton captain saw his effort from 25 yards thunder against the crossbar from the resultant corner-kick.
Two moments of madness should really have put paid to the Croatian hopes with 70 minutes on the clock. Stanic fouled Steve Staunton for a second time and was dismissed, then 90 seconds later Jurcic upended the same man with a silly tackle from behind and he followed his teammate to the showers. The Croatians looked if anything more dangerous with nine men than the they did with the full compliment, as they whipped in hopeful crosses to aggressive substitute Pamic, that might have borne some fruit had a more nimble recipient been on the end. Ireland, having weathered that storm, endeavored to play keep-ball for the remainder, and the crowd sensing victory burst into song. We didn't hear "You'll never beat the Irish" though, apparently we need to string together two victories in a row for that particular number.
The game ended in carnival atmosphere and the much-needed points were in the bag. At the after-match press conference, the Croatian coach, Miroslav Blazevic, said that in his 20 years he had never seen a crowd get behind their team quite like the Irish did on Saturday. He was humble in defeat. Ireland next travel to Yugoslavia, where a similar effort will be required in order to reap even a point from this important away game.