Narrow play-off defeats don't rankle, but one moment in Macedonia does
In his second exclusive column for Paddy Power, the Irish legend takes a walk down Memory Lane to his high point and low point in his Ireland career
Prior to that game against the Netherlands in Lansdowne Road in 2001, I knew that the Dutch had already booked flights hotels for the play-off and for the World Cup. That just pissed me off completely. I made sure the lads knew all that and it made the team talk a bit easier.
Without any doubt, it was the high point of my time in charge of Ireland. It was amazing. It summed up what we’ve gone through as a nation. We drew 2-2 over in their place, but still no-one gave us a chance against the team they turned up with. With the quality they had, it was hard not to be apprehensive. I knew if we lost, I was out of a job.
Roy Keane set the tone for the game when he clattered into Marc Overmars inside the first minute. Individually they had better players than us, but collectively, they didn’t have a better team. They didn’t have a team that was willing to fight, to scrap, to stop the opposition playing as well as trying to play our own game. I remember vividly telling them at half-time ‘passionate hearts and calm heads’ and then of course good old Kells (Gary Kelly) got himself sent off with more than half an hour to play.
Then when the ball drops to Jason McAteer, I think we’re all telling him ‘f*cking hell, take a touch’ and then he hits it first time and we’re all on our feet, ‘what a goal!’
That was just wonderful, an unbelievable day. I don’t think they could believe the intensity we played with. Once they brought Hasselbaink and Van Hooijdonk on and started hoofing long balls, I knew it wouldn’t work and I was convinced we’d win the game.
During in my time in charge of Ireland, qualifying for tournaments was difficult. After finishing second to Romania in 1998 World Cup qualifying, we had to play Belgium in a play-off which we lost narrowly. In Euro 2000 qualifying, we finished behind Yugoslavia and ahead of a Croatia team that finished third at the previous World Cup only to draw Turkey in the play-off. Even in 2002 we went undefeated, separated Portugal and the Netherlands and still had to face Iran in the play-off.
The only frustration I have around those campaigns is that in the last match of Euro 2000 qualifying, we conceded a header against Macedonia in the 94th minute that cost us a win and automatic qualification.
That still pisses me off to this day. It’s the only thing that still bothers me from my entire career with Ireland. I don’t have anyone to blame.
I look at my substitutions that day and wonder did I do the right thing. If we keep that goal out, they’re great substitutions, if we don’t, they’re terrible. That’s one of the lowest points in my entire football career and it still irks me to this day.
Scout of my comfort zone in Tehran
Facing Iran in the play-off for the 2002 World Cup place was tough after one of Ireland’s best ever qualification campaigns. I went out to scout them when they had two games against the UAE and it was incredible. We were in the directors’ seats. I say directors’ seats, but it was four white plastic picnic chairs in a cordoned off section. I said ‘I’m not sitting there – that’s like a target – no chance’. We did one and sat somewhere else.
Before the anthems, they had something that sounded like a prayer on and they were all chanting it. It was unbelievable. It boomed out over the speakers and the fans joined in. The noise they generated – I’ve never heard anything like it in a stadium. It was eerie. Of course it was all male voices because women weren’t allowed go to the games and it amplified the sound.
I warned my players about it before we went over. I told them about the booming noise out of the speakers and told them to ignore it and just stand still until the anthems. Of course the moment the booming finished, they ran away and had to be brought back. It was an incredible atmosphere and they were no mugs either. Shay Given kept us in it at 2-0 in the Lansdowne Road leg. It they’d got an away goal, it could have been a different outcome. After experiences of losing to Belgium narrowly and Turkey in a really nasty match, it made going to Iran and beating them all the more satisfying.
There’s more teams at the Euros than ever before and 16 of the 24 will make it out of the groups. That sounds easier, but you can be sure you’ll still have to beat the best to win it. Looking at our group that’s as plain as the nose on my face. The Euros has always been the toughest tournament of them. The quality is really condensed. If you think about Euro 88 when we played the USSR, the Netherlands and England – it was very tough. But even with the changes, to do well, you’re going to have to beat the best teams.