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Ireland and the Czech Republic have history !

It has always proved difficult for Ireland to secure a good result against the Czech Republic or the former Czechoslovakia. The matches between the two have always been highly competitive and memories of two, in particular, are revived by tonight's contest at the Aviva Stadium (7.45 pm).

 

One yielded an unlikely Irish victory and the other a defeat that was hugely significant from an Irish point of view.

 

The victory we talk of was achieved on November 22, 1967, in a qualifying match for the 1968 UEFA Nations Cup – the competition that is now known as the UEFA European Championship.

 

It was a much smaller competition in those days with just 31 entries but it was devilishly difficult, as ever, to advance. Ireland were drawn in a group with Czechoslovakia, Spain and Turkey with only one team advancing to the knock-out final stages.

 

Czechoslovakia looked to be in control of the group when they played Ireland in their final match on November 22, 1967 in Prague. They had already beaten Ireland 2-1 in Dublin and needed just a draw to finish above Spain to advance to the quarter-finals in a competition that had a much different format to that which applies today.

 

Everything seemed to be going Czechoslovakia's way when Ireland's centre-back, John Dempsey of Chelsea, conceded an 'own goal' in the 58th minute. Ray Treacy pulled Ireland level when he scored after 65 minutes and pandemonium broke out when Turlough O'Connor snatched a winning goal after 86 minutes.

 

O'Connor, of Athlone Town, Bohemians and Dundalk fame, was making his debut for Ireland in that match as was Eamonn Rogers of Blackburn Rovers. Goalkeeper Alan Kelly of Preston, Charlie Hurley of Sunderland and Mick Meagan, of Everton and Drogheda United, were major players in that team.

 

The shock defeat of Czechoslovakia meant elimination for they finished with seven points after the six matches and Spain had eight. Ireland's win lifted them above Turkey in third place with five points from wins over Turkey, in Dublin, and over Czechoslovakia in Prague as well as a 1-1 draw with Spain at Dalymount Park.

 

The 1-2 defeat of Ireland by the Czech Republic in a friendly match in Olomouc on March 25, 1998, was of huge significance for the manager of the day, Mick McCarthy.

 

McCarthy was appointed in succession to Jack Charlton after Ireland's elimination from the UEFA Championship of 1996. His first game in charge was a friendly against Russia in March 1996 and he led the team to a play-off with Belgium for a place in the finals of the 1998 World Cup. Ireland lost to Belgium 2-3 on aggregate over two legs.

 

That team included several who had served under Charlton and who were now obviously approaching the end of their international careers. McCarthy transformed the team for the UEFA Championship of 2000 after the match against the Czech Republic for he introduced six players new to international football in the course of that match.

 

This was the Czech Republic team that had played so spectacularly well to reach the finals of the 1996 UEFA Championship in England when they lost to Germany in the final at Wembley on the "golden goal" system after Oliver Bierhoff had scored his second in a 2-1 win.

 

The Czechs included most of that team when they played Ireland in March of 1998 – Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky, Vladimir Smicer included. They were surprised when Ireland scored through Gary Breen after 9 minutes but fought back to win with goals from Smicer and Lasota.

 

The significance of the match for Ireland was the inclusion by manager McCarthy of newcomers Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Mark Kinsella, Rory Delap, Graham Kavanagh and Alan Maybury. Some of them went on to make huge contributions to Ireland's international efforts and, happily, Keane and Duff remain important members of today's squad.

 

It remains to be seen whether Ireland's current manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, will use this latest contest with the Czech Republic to further extend his squad of international players. With the European Championship finals of 2012 just around the corner, every player who enjoys some playing time tonight will have a huge incentive to impress.

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