FAI History Chapter 36 - WC 1998 Qualifying Tournament
Chapter 36 - World Cup 1998 Qualifying Tournament
Ireland's emerging young team were given no time for reflection after the first, hectic weeks of Mick McCarthy's reign as manager.
McCarthy presided over eight matches from March 27 to June 12, 1996, as he moved at high pace to ready his team for the qualifying tournament of the 1998 World Cup. The win over Bolivia in the last of those eight matches was their only success.
It was enough, however, to confirm that progress had been made and that the players were embracing McCarthy's change of tactics from his predecessor's preferred methods. As well it was obvious that he had added some exciting young players to strengthen the squad.
Now they travelled to the Sportpark in Eschen to play Liechtenstein on August 31st in their opening competitive match in a first real test of the new manager. The positive attitude encouraged by three vigorous performances in America was very apparent.
Ireland won 5-0 and the list of goal-scorers reflected the pleasing balance that had been achieved between the experienced and the new for Niall Quinn scored two of the goals, Andy Townsend another while youngsters Keith O'Neill and Ian Harte plundered two more.
Ireland's first competitive match at home under the new manager saw FYR Macedonia face Ireland at Lansdowne Road on October 9, 1996. Again Ireland clicked and fashioned a very satisfactory 3-0 win with two goals from Tony Cascarino and another from Jason McAteer.
Such a spectacular start to the campaign set pulses racing but a big and physically powerful Iceland strode into Lansdowne Road on November 10 to check Ireland's gallop. Their pragmatic football and efficient organisation ensured that Ireland dropped points in a scoreless game.
It was essentially an experienced team that McCarthy selected with Gary Breen the only newcomer from Charlton's time in the starting eleven. But three more were introduced as substitutes - Ian Harte, Kenny Cunningham and Alan Moore.
In retrospect it seems likely that McCarthy reached a significant decision that afternoon. Ireland's failure to beat Iceland at home would inevitably impact hugely upon the qualification process given that Ireland still had to play their major rivals, Romania, home and away and also had to visit Macedonia and Iceland.
McCarthy had been a colleague of some of Ireland's more senior internationals and, given the personality of the man, it was obvious he would not want to short-change them.
As the sequence of disappointing results extended it became increasingly obvious that still more new players needed to be found and incorporated into the squad.
A friendly against Wales in Ninian Park on February 11, 1997, afforded him the opportunity to experiment again. Keith Branagan of Bolton Wanderers came in for his only appearance in goal, Ian Harte and Kenny Cunningham started in the defensive line of four, Jon Goodman, of Wimbledon, started at centre-forward and the youthful Gary Kelly came in as substitute.
The match should not have taken place for in bitterloy-cold conditions the pitch was frozen and it was no surprise that it ended scoreless. The desire to effect change more quickly than had been happening must have been strong.
An away match against the dangerous FYR Macedonia in Skopje on April 2 was not calculated to encourage bravado ! McCarthy went with an experienced team - Alan Kelly in goal, Terry Phelan, Denis Irwin and Steve Staunton alongside the developing Gary Breen in defence.
Jason McAteer and Alan McLoughlin were alongside Andy Townsend and Roy Keane - who was making his third appearance and first in a competitive match in McCarthy's 13 matches - in central midfield with Goodman partnering Cascarino.
The game was to prove a major disappointment. Ireland moved smoothly into a dominant position with a goal from McLoughlin after just eight minutes.
The goal should have been the catalyst for a compelling performance but instead it fostered a feeling of over-confidence and indulgence. Ireland finished with ten men after Jason McAteer was sent off in the dying minutes and FYR Macedonia worked a 3-1 advantage before David Kelly salvaged a 78th minute consolation.
Hopes of qualification for the finals in France were now sliding alarmingly. And when Romania won 1-0 in Bucharest as Roy Keane missed from the penalty spot on April 30, 1997, hopes of winning the group and qualifying automatically were gone.
A home game against Liechtenstein at Lansdowne Road on May 21, 1997, suggested s vigorous response was needed and it came in the form of 5-0 win.
David Connolly ratcheted up the excitement with a welcome hat-trick of goals in the first half of the game to raise hopes that here was the natural successor to Quinn, Aldridge and Stapleton. Tony Cascarino contributed two more after the interval.
Yet more disappointment lay just around the corner, however. Lithuania travelled to Lansdowne Road on August 20th and Ireland approached the game confident in the knowledge that three points were there for the taking.
The game ended scoreless before a disappointed 32,6000 spectators with relative newcomers Shay Given, Ian Harte, Kenny Cunningham, Mark Kennedy and David Connolly suffering alongside the regulars.
Ireland now faced elimination squarely in the face but to their credit they reacted brilliantly. They travelled to Reykjavik on September 6 with the memory of points lost to Iceland at Lansdowne Road twelve months previously all too menacing and all too real.
History invested the match with a special significance for it marked the debut of a nervous young winger in Kevin Kilbane, then with West Brom. The elevation probably came too soon for Kilbane but he recovered from the disappointment of being substituted at half-time to go on to enjoy a career of remarkable consistency in more than 100 internationals.
Shay Given, Gary Kelly, Ian Harte, Kenny Cunningham, Kilbane and David Connolly as well as substitute Mark Kennedy were proof that the younger set were assuming control. Goals from Connolly and Kennedy book-marked a couple by Roy Keane as Ireland won 4-2.
Ireland were now aiming at the runners-up spot and a play-off for a place in the finals in France, but there still was work to do. They had Lithuania in Vilnius and Romania at Lansdowne Road to come and they needed points.
The trip to Lithuania was accomplished convincingly on September 10, 1997. A 2-1 win recalled the frustration at Ireland's failure to win a scoreless game between the two at Lansdowne Road just a month previously. This time two goals from Tony Cascarino were enough.
The fans rolled up in numbers for the critical final match against Romania on October 11. There were 49,000 fans in the stadium as Ireland came from behind with Tony Cascarino raising the roof with a goal in the 83rd minute that wiped out a beauty from Gheorghe Hagi in the 53rd minute.
Cascarino's goal ruined Romania's 100% record in the qualifiers and, more importantly, sent Ireland into a play-off.
Lee Carsley started while Curtis Fleming and Michael Evans saw action as substitutes against Romania and now McCarthy had to plan for two play-off matches against Belgium while still team-building.
The first of the matches was at Lansdowne on October 29 and McCarthy included Gary Kelly, Ian Harte, Kenny Cunningham, David Connolly and Mark Kennedy in his team while Jeff Kenna, Lee Carsley and Tommy Coyne, making a come-back after the USA World Cup, came in as subs.
Ireland played well and raised hopes of qualifying when Denis Irwin delightfully spun a free into the Belgian net after eight minutes. But the excellent Luc Nilis equalised in the 29th minute and that is how it finished.
Clearly the return leg would be difficult with Belgium enjoying the advantage of an away goal. But Ireland were not fazed and although Oliviera scored after 29 minutes, Ireland struck back vigorously to level on aggregate through Ray Houghton on 59 minutes. Nilis again broke Ireland's hearts with a decisive goal after 69 minutes.