Mick warns fans to be wary of taking Antonio Conte's side lightly on Wednesday
Great footballers but with a hard nose - that's the verdict on Ireland's opponents
Everyone is clutching at straws if they think Italy might put out a weakened team against Ireland. It’s nonsense, total bollocks. They may not play all their best players, but it strikes me that they’ve brought 23 of their best players, not just 11. If Antonio Conte makes a few changes, he will still be able to bring in quality. And the idea that they may not be giving it everything because they’re already thinking about the Last 16 – mark my words – the Italians want to finish with nine points and beat us. Don’t think anything else. Self-preservation, taking the foot off the gas, whatever you call it; that is never a conscious decision from management. Anyone who comes in will want to impress, so we will be facing a good, well organised, motivated Italian team.
Ireland need to play as well as they can to win this. There will be no favours. Our defending needs to improve from what we saw against Belgium and going forward, free-kicks and corners may be our best hope of scoring so deliveries need to be spot on even against what looks like the best defence at the tournament.
There’s so much to be learned from Italian teams in tournament football. They don’t get beaten very often. They will drag you down, make the tactical fouls, take the bookings – whatever is needed. The best teams have done it going back decades. Great footballers but with a hard nose. The best teams are ruthless. Italy will be ruthless against us and beyond.
I experienced that in that famous quarter-final at Italia 90 (Mick pictured in the Ireland team, above). The days before the game were strange. It was incredible to think we were there, but at the same time, we all felt we deserved to be there. Euro 88 was more of a glad to be here rollercoaster ride, but the pressure was on in 1990 and we had to perform. We’d become a good team by then and knew it.
The build-up was amazing. Being in Rome, facing the host nation, meeting the Pope – all of that was fabulous. And the match was unbelievable to be involved in. Leading Ireland out in a World Cup quarter-final at the Olympic Stadium in Rome with that atmosphere was the best and proudest moment of my career.
I remember thinking we deserved to be there and we could beat them. I never looked at their back four and thought ‘yeah, I’m definitely in the same bracket as Franco Baresi or Paolo Maldini’ but collectively as a team, I thought we were as good as them and as good as anyone at that tournament.
I had a few run-ins with Toto Schillaci during the match. He had just exploded onto the scene at the World Cup, so it wasn’t as if I had a huge knowledge of him. He was such a handful, similar to Jamie Vardy these days in how he has burst onto the international scene. I’m sure he was threatening me with the horse’s head at one point.
He gave me the old ‘thumb across the throat gesture’ and despite my lack of Italian, it was a sign that’s universally understood. He was a competitor and he didn’t mind the physical stuff. And he could play. I’ve a lot of respect for him – he made it a tough night for me. And he came up with a great finish for the winner.
I remember storming off at the end furious that we’d lost. The referee was appalling. He blew for so many small things, he broke the pattern of our game and made it hard to keep the intensity on Italy. It ruined our flow and suited the Italians. At the end, Baresi followed me to the tunnel to shake hands and swap shirts. It’s a memento I treasure from Italia 90. I then stormed up the tunnel broken-hearted and sat in the dressing room in tears. All the fans were saluting the Irish team out on the pitch and I missed it. I regret that. I was snarling away in the dressing room on my own. Grumpy f*cker!
There wasn’t a lot we could have done against Belgium in Bordeaux on Saturday. They were the far superior side. They kept the ball for most of the game and it was more down to how good they were rather than how bad we were. They were poor against Italy in the first game so they needed a response and we were on the receiving end of it. It’s not always down to us playing badly. Sometimes you just come up against a better opponent and they outplay you and Belgium did. Yes, we made some mistakes and they had the quality players to punish us. I still don’t rate them as a top team though and they won’t be unless they come together and play as a team. I thought some players looked like they were playing for themselves.
The margin of defeat shouldn’t worry us too much. It was fairly tight until we started chasing the game and that played right into their hands so the scoreline was worse than it should have been. Our performance against Sweden was great, but when you are playing well and dominating the game like we were, you have to finish them off. Now having seen them twice, the Swedes look an ordinary team and we should have won.
Ireland have a history of performing when it’s needed and it is needed on Wednesday against Italy. We can win, but it will take our best performance and a bit more. If we’re not at our best, we have no chance. It’s got to be one of those performances that comes from the bottom of your heart like our 10 man victory over Holland in 2001 and our last minute draw against Germany in 2002. It has to be something special. We will have to start well make sure we are solid and get a foothold in the game. But if they score early they certainly know how to hold on to a lead and it could be over for us.
Yes we can win but we need to stay in the game, not do anything stupid and nick a goal from somewhere.