FAI History Chapter 40 - World Cup 2002 Qualifying
Ireland's results may have been somewhat mixed over the previous six months but confidence was still high heading into the World Cup of 2002 after their spirited challenge in the UEFA Championship of 2000.
Ireland travelled to Amsterdam on September 2, 2000, to open their bid for a top two finish in Group Two of the World Cup 2002 qualifying tournament with a well-balanced team and a recognisable and proven pattern of play.
Alan Kelly was in goal with Stephen Carr, Gary Breen, Richard Dunne and Ian Harte in the defensive line. Jason McAteer and Kevin Kilbane were on the flanks with Roy Keane and Mark Kinsella in central positions. Niall Quinn partnered Robbie Keane up front.
Ireland played superbly and shocked Netherlands by powering into a 2-0 lead with goals from Robbie Keane, after 21, and Jason McAteer, after 65. Netherlands took a long time to exert some control on the trend of the game but a goal from substitute Talan after 71 minutes brought them back.
They exerted lots of pressure in the closing minutes but were lucky to claim an equaliser in the 84th minute. A shot from Giovanni Van Bronckhurst from 30 yards took a deflection past goalkeeper Alan Kelly.
Ireland travelled to Lisbon on October 7 with some regrets at losing a two goals lead to the Netherlands but buoyed by the belief they had nothing to fear from one of their top rivals. Now Portugal would give them further evidence of what was needed to come through from the group and make it to the World Cup finals in South Korea/Japan.
Portugal proved more difficult opponents than Netherlands and a talented midfield combination that included Rui Costa and Luis Figo gave Ireland a torrid time. They led after 57 minutes when Conceicao scored. But Ireland showed their growing maturity as they struck back to draw with a goal from substitute Matt Holland in the 72nd minute.
This represented a very exciting start to their Championship challenge. They had travelled to play their two strongest rivals and had come away unbeaten with two precious away points in safe-keeping. Ambition within the squad soared in consequence.
Estonia provided the opposition in Ireland's first home match in the competition on October 11, 2000 at Lansdowne Road. The attendance of 34,962 was indicative of Ireland's growing optimism and the players did not disappoint. They won 2-0 with goals from Mark Kinsella after 25 minutes and another from Richard Dunne in the 50th minute.
It was a confident squad that faced Finland in Dublin in a friendly on November 15, 2000. Ireland won 3-0 with goals from Steve Finnan, after 14 minutes, Kevin Kilbane, 85 minutes, and Steve Staunton, 90 minutes. Kilbane's beautiful headed goal was the 500th in Ireland's history.
Ireland had now gone seven games without defeat and were playing with impressive consistency. The team was settled, scoring goals and with the partnership of Niall Quinn and Robbie Keane developing all the time, Ireland represented a threat to the very best.
The visit to Cyprus in the Championship on March 24, 2001 offered them a chance to make a statement of intent and they did so emphatically with a 4-0 win in Nicosia. Roy Keane scored after 33 minutes, Ian Harte converted a penalty after 42, Gary Kelly added a third after 81 and Roy Keane completed the rout in the 89th minute.
Four days later Ireland further boosted their points total and improved their position by hitting Andorra 3-0. The game was played in Barcelona, in the second stadium at Camp Nou and with only 5,000 fans present the atmosphere was low-key and not at all what Ireland were used to. The goals came from Kevin Kilbane, Matt Holland and a penalty from Ian Harte.
Andorra shocked Ireland when they played at Lansdowne on April 25 2001 by scoring after 32 minutes. Ireland had one of the youngest teams ever on duty with Shay Given in goal and in front of him were Gary Kelly, Gary Breen, Richard Dunne, Ian Harte, Mark Kennedy, Matt Holland, Mark Kinsella, Kevin Kilbane, Gary Doherty, David Connolly. Ireland quickly put matters right and won 3-1 with goals from Kilbane, Kinsella and Breen.
Two months later, on Saturday, June 6, Portugal played at Lansdowne Road in a pivotal match. Ireland needed a result here if they were to capitalise upon their impressive form and it was vitally important that they prevented Portugal from taking all three points.
The match proved conclusively that Portugal had the edge on Ireland for their football was dynamic and attractive. Rui Costa, in his trademark languid style, orchestrated their play from central midfield and a young debutant in Petit blossomed alongside him. Luis Figo provided menace up front with his penetrating runs and Pauletta was a lively strike force.
Ireland struggled to contain Portugal throughout a tense opening half but with Roy Keane driving them on relentlessly from central midfield, Ireland came into the game after half-time.
Richard Dunne and Stephen Staunton developed an understanding at centre-back after a tentative opening and when Roy Keane scored after 65 minutes it looked as if Ireland might snatch a win.
Portugal were too good, however, to let that happen. They drove Ireland back for the closing fifteen minutes and took the equaliser they deserved in clinical fashion after 79 minutes when Figo neatly headed in a cross.
Portugal regretted the chances they wasted in the opening half as Ireland secured a battling draw, but with Roy Keane picking up a yellow card, his second of the tournament, they would have to travel to Estonia without him.
Portugal had, by now, done enough to show that they were the main force in the group but with eleven games now behind them since their last defeat, Ireland were determined not to lose ground.
They defeated Estonia 2-0 in Tallinn in a stadium that was still under construction. The attendance was limited to 9,000 as a result and the pitch was far from satisfactory but Ireland settled things quickly with Richard Dunne, after nine minutes, and Matt Holland, after 39, claiming the goals.
A surprise was the selection of Damien Duff in place of Robbie Keane as partner to Niall Quinn and the move worked with Duff outstanding.
Ireland were now on top of their group but with the probability that Portugal would eventually prevail it was clear that the important second place rested between Ireland and Netherlands. The match in Dublin against Netherlands in September was certain to be decisive and Ireland prepared by playing Croatia on August 15.
The match was drawn 2-2 and, with both teams using many substitutes, was of little consequence in developing team matters. Manager Mick McCarthy took advantage of the occasion by introducing Steven Reid, Clinton Morrison and John O'Shea to international football.
Morrison, then with QPR, came in as substitute and was given a great ovation from 27,000 fans when he scored in the 78th minute. Damien Duff marked his 21st game for Ireland with his first goal. John O'Shea kicked off his magnificent international career by coming in as substitute in the 84th minute but he was unfortunate to handle the ball and concede the penalty that enabled Davor Suker shoot Croatia's second equaliser.
So the highly-rated Dutch rode into town, basking in their achievement of finishing third in the European Championship in Belgium/Holland a little over twelve months previously. Ireland were top of the qualifying table but Portugal had the easier run in and looked certain to finish top to take the one automatic qualifying spot for the World Cup finals of 2002 in South Korea/Japan.
The contest at Lansdowne Road, before a full house of close to 40,000, was virtually certain to decide second place and Ireland were determined they would not fail. They were focused and driven from kick-off but met strong and capable opponents who showed they were just as determined as a classic contest unfolded.
It quickly became apparent that Netherlands' left-winger, Marc Overmars, was set to provide problems for Ireland. His elusive running tempted full-back Gary Kelly into two ill-timed tackles that earned yellow cards and the second, in the 58th minute, meant that Ireland were down to ten men with more than 30 minutes left to play.
The Dutch were outstanding but Ireland were even better and magnificent defensive work by goalkeeper Shay Given and, especially, centre-backs Richard Dunne and Stephen Staunton was critically important. Roy Keane offered them great protection and Ireland maintained their composure in face of sustained pressure.
One particular incident, as Ireland defiantly manned an overcrowded penalty area in the closing half-hour spoke volumes – Van Bronckhurst hammered a powerful shot at goal from 30 yards, Dunne stepped into the path of the ball and simply volleyed it over half-way.
Such flambuoyant defiance served Ireland well after Jason McAteer had volleyed the only goal of the game from Steve Finnan's cross in the 68th minute. McAteer was totally unmarked outside the left-hand post as Finnan found time to measure a cross from the right that was despatched from 20 yards with impressive confidence.
The Dutch cause was not helped when they made an extraordinary substitution by withdrawing the brilliant Overmars in the second half. They sought to break down Ireland's defence by employing four tall strikers in Kluivert, van Nistelrooy, Van Hooijdonk and Hasselbaink and feeding them high balls from a withdrawn position through Cocu.
This played into Ireland's hands with Dunne and Staunton dominating in the air and revelling in the aerial bombardment. Netherlands grew increasingly more desperate as the clock ticked down and with Overmars off the pitch they lacked penetration.
Ireland's win meant they were now sure of at least a play-off and manager McCarthy commented: "We were fifteen seconds from qualifying for the European Championship when we lost a goal to Macedonia and that hurt ... this is no more than we deserve."
Portugal duly finished their programme in impressive style to top the group and Ireland learned their play-off opponents would be from Asia as they defeated Cyprus 4-0 in Dublin on September 1st 2001. Ian Harte and Niall Quinn scored first half goals, David Connolly and Roy Keane added two more. Quinn's 21st goal made him Ireland's record goal-scorer.
Iran represented an exotic new challenge for Ireland in the play-off but what was more important is that it was a third consecutive opportunity for Ireland to advance to the finals of a championship in a play-off. Manager Mick McCarthy and his squad suffered the agony of losses to Belgium and Turkey over the previous four years in play-off matches ... this time they were determined it would be different.
Ireland faced Iran on November 19 at Lansdowne Road, knowing that if they were to succeed it was critical they fashioned a lead from the home match and prevented Iran from scoring an 'away goal' that would count double in the event of a tie over the two matches. Ireland succeeded admirably on both counts but only after a huge contest.
Ireland were not at their best, the importance of the occasion fostering a level of tension that was tangible. The former Croatia manager, the astute Miroslav Blazevic, was in charge of Iran and his capable squad had the technique, the organisation and the physical strength to meet Ireland's challenge.
Iran mounted a huge challenge and Ireland had to work as never before to keep a clean sheet and defeat them 2-0. Goalkeeper Shay Given was inspirational and two saves, in particular, he made from Iran's chief striker, Ali Karimi, were magnificent.
Iran looked well capable of spoiling Ireland's party but the busy Jason McAteer forced a penalty decision on the call of half-time and Ian Harte converted confidently to relieve Ireland's mounting anxiety. The goal had the effect of denying Iran the lift of denying Ireland the quick start they chased – probably with too much enthusiasm – and gave Ireland the boost they needed to start the second half with renewed energy.
Iran were stretched for ten vital minutes as Ireland stormed forward and the vital second goal arrived in the 50th minute. Robbie Keane struck in a crowded goalmouth as a free from the right spun around the goalmouth. Its importance and the failure of Iran to beat Given were obvious to all.
Five days later Ireland faced the twin challenges of coping with a fired-up Iran and atmosphere generated by 80,000 fanatical fans in Tehran. They did so without the services of Roy Keane and Niall Quinn, who were kept out by injuries. Mark Kinsella dame into midfield, David Connolly up front.
Ireland were engaged in a dogged struggle from the kick-off against a background of noise that had to be experienced to appreciate. They did so with such effectiveness that half-time arrived with the fans struck dumb.
Goalkeeper Given was again a hero, centre-backs Gary Breen and Steve Staunton outstanding and midfielders Matt Holland and Mark Kinsella offering consistent and powerful protection in front of them.
Clinton Morrison and Gary Kelly came in as second half substitutes and all 13 players worked diligently and with composure to defy Iran. They succeeded spectacularly and although they conceded the only goal of the game in the first minute of added time they knew, by then, they had completed a triumphant journey.
Ireland had gone 16 games without loss and for Mick McCarthy and his dedicated squad, qualification for the World Cup finals in South Korea/Japan in 2002 represented a deserved reward for six years of unselfish work and dedicated service.