FAI History Chapter 37 - UEFA 2000 Preparations

FAI History Chapter 37 - UEFA 2000 Preparations

FAI History Chapter 37 - UEFA 2000 Preparations ...
7th Jul 2011


FAI History Chapter 37 - UEFA 2000 Preparations

Ireland had now failed to make the finals of a second consecutive major championship by losing a play-off, first to Netherlands in the UEFA Championship of 1996 and now Belgium in the 1998 World Cup.

There was a subtle and significant distinction between the two events.

The loss to Netherlands was Jack Charlton's last match for Ireland; it signified the end of an era and the end, or imminent end, of his distinguished squad.

Mick McCarthy's advancement to play Belgium, however disappointing the result, represented a measure of achievement for the new regime. The squad had undergone significant change yet results were enough to see Ireland emerge from a challenging group.

There was no escaping the fact that France would have been an ideal base for Ireland to contest the finals of a major championship, just as convenient and as attractive as England would have been in 1996.

Now it was gone, however, but the draw for the UEFA Championship of 2000 that grouped Ireland with Croatia, Yugoslavia, FYR Macedonia and Malta again fed Ireland's ambitions with fresh optimism.

Ireland had three matches arranged in preparation for the kick-off of the new competition which was set for September 5, 1998 in Dublin against Croatia. First, they would face the Czech Republic, Argentina and Mexico.

The Czech Republic in Olomouc on March 25, 1998, represented serious opposition. The Czechs had finished runners-up to Germany in the UEFA Championship of 1996 and many of their top players had built impressive reputations on the European circuit in the interim - Pavel Nedved, Poborski, Smicer, Kuka, Bejbl, Berger.

Not all of them were in the team that faced Ireland but McCarthy had his own agenda and was clearly intent on expanding his squad. He introduced a clutch of new players, several of whom would go on to make a huge impact upon Ireland's fortunes and build glittering careers.

Shay Given was in goal, Alan Maybury and Jeff Kenna at full-back, Gary Breen and Kenny Cunningham at centre-back, Gary Kelly, Lee Carsley, Mark Kinsella, Gareth Farrelly and Damien Duff in midfield, David Connolly up front. Robbie Keane, Kevin Kilbane, Alan McLoughlin, Rory Delap and Graham Kavanagh came in as subs.

As make-overs go this was enormous. And Ireland played well. Gary Breen put them in front after nine minutes and the Czech Republic struck back through Smicer and Lasota in the second half.

Ireland played Argentina at Lansdowne Road on April 22 and were decisively beaten 2-0. The attendance of 38,500 enjoyed a bright match with goals from two of Argentina's marquee players, Gabriel Batistuta and Ariel Ortega with the elegant Juan Veron orchestrating matters in midfield.

Robbie Keane was given his second start at centre-forward alongside Niall Quinn and the lively young striker was again up front alongside David Connolly when Mexico visited Lansdowne on May 23.

Damien Duff, David Connolly, Ian Harte, Gary Kelly, Shay Given were also in a very youthful team selection.

The match ended scoreless but now McCarthy had built a balanced squad of players who were familiar with his preferred tactical approach.

Ahead lay a challenging qualifying tournament with perilous assignations in Eastern Europe to be negotiated.

The youthful exuberance of his developing squad meant they set out with ambitions high and brimful of optimism. The prospect of playing the final tournament so close to home in Holland and Belgium was calculated to inspire.