Ireland will heed the lessons of past play-off matches

Ireland will heed the lessons of past play-off matches

Ireland will be seeking a change of luck ... 
12th Nov 2009


Ireland will be seeking a change of luck when they play France in the World Cup play-off games over the next seven days - Ireland succeeded in successfully coming through previous play-offs only once in six attempts.

The then manager, Mick McCarthy, triumphantly led Ireland to qualification for the World Cup finals in South Korea and Japan in 2002 when Ireland beat Iran 2-1 on aggregate over two legs.

The excellence of Ireland's teak-tough defence was critical over the two games. They held Iran scoreless in the first leg at Lansdowne Road and, with the final seconds ticking down in the second leg in Tehran, they knew their concession of a goal in added time was too late to threaten their position.

The goals Ireland scored in the first leg were decisive. Ian Harte converted a penalty just before half-time and Robbie Keane's goal early in the second half clinched a win.

What was critical, of course, was the fact that a defence led by the marvellous Shay Given and Gary Breen refused to concede a goal and Ireland could approach the second leg, before 100,000 fans in Tehran, with confidence.

It goes without saying that Giovanni Trapattoni will be seeking to direct a similar operation on Saturday when Ireland play France at Croke Park (8.00 pm kick-off).

A similar scoring performance from Robbie Keane would be welcome, of course, but it is just as important that Ireland keep France scoreless.

Two of Ireland's previous Championship play-off deciders were one-off affairs at neutral venues. Ireland were defeated 1-0 by Spain in Paris on November 1965 as they strove unsuccessfully for a place in the World Cup finals in England in 1966.

Then Ireland were drawn against Netherlands in a play-off for a place in the finals of the UEFA Championship, again in England, in 1996. Jack Charlton's team ran up against a powerful Dutch selection who won 2-0 at Anfield with two goals from Patrick Kluivert.

Ireland's other two play-off encounters were over two legs and ... as now ... Ireland had to play the first match at home. Ireland conceded a goal to the opposition on each occasion at Lansdowne Road and thar proved decisive.

Ireland played Belgium for a place in the 1998 World Cup finals in France and the first match was at Lansdowne Road on October 29, 1997. Ireland's hopes soared when Denis Irwin produced a spectacular goal after only six minutes from a trademark free kick.

Luc Nilis had Belgium on level terms after half-an-hour and Mick McCarthy - in his first campaign as manager - knew his emerging young team faced a major challenge in Brussels.

Luis Oliveira put Belgium in front early in the game but a spirited Ireland were level when substitute Ray Houghton headed an equaliser on the hour. Belgium's second goal on a night of heavy ran came following a disputed throw-in which led to Luc Nilis scoring, twenty minutes from time.

Ireland were close again, but ultimately frustrated, when they played Turkey in a play-off for a place in the UEFA Championship finals of 2000 which were played in Belgium and Holland.

Ireland were within 12 seconds of qualifying automatically when they conceded an equalising goal to Macedonia in the group qualifiers and such a near-miss was not rewarded when the draw for the play-offs took place. Turkey had also failed narrowly to qualify automatically, they were denied on goal difference.

A tight and tactical match at Lansdowne Road on November 13, 1999, swung Ireland's way when Robbie Keane scored with eleven minutes left. But Turkey won a penalty four minutes later when Lee Carsley was adjudged to have handled and Tayfur Havutcu scored a critical equaliser.

Dean Kiely had come in as substitute for the injured Alan Kelly in the course of the first game and he played superbly in his first competitive appearances. He was top-class as a fractious second leg finished scoreless in Bursa.

Turkey were not the most hospitable hosts for Ireland had to undertake a difficult journey to Bursa - flying to Istanbul, travelling by coach for almost an hour to catch a ferry that took them on a 90 minute ride across an agitated Sea of Marmara. On the return journey the sea was extremely rough so many in the Irish party were physically ill.

Turkey went through on the away goals rule and showed their quality in the final tournament. They marched to the quarter-finals where they were beaten 2-0 by an exciting Portugal team.

Experience shows that denying the opposition a goal in the home leg is critically important to winning a play-off. Who better to help Ireland set up the screen they will need if they are to frustrate France's highly-rated strike force than Giovanni Trapattoni ?

Roll on Saturday !