On the same day that England recorded their astonishing 5-1 win away to the old enemy in Germany, another international team were turning heads with an equally memorable result. While superstars such as Beckham, Campbell, Owen and Heskey spectacularly annhilated the Germans, the moderate talents of Kilbane, Dunne, McAteer and Finnan led 10-man Ireland to victory against the ridiculously talented Dutch.
Ireland have guaranteed themselves at least a play-off slot for the 2002 World Cup, and with one game left still have an outside chance of winning their group. Indeed, but for losing a 2-0 lead against Holland in the first qualifying game they could be top of the group and odds-on favourites to be going automatically to Japan and South Korea next year.
But even so, to split two of the best teams in the world in Portugal and Holland, the Irish have achieved something arguably on a par with the highs of Euro 88 and the quarter final run of the 1990 World Cup. How could such a small international squad with only one world class player manage to perform so consistently, while star-laden teams like Holland, England, Croatia, and the Czech Republic have hummed and hawed their way through qualifying?
Getting a few lucky results can happen to any international team, but Ireland have pulled out the stops through the whole campaign. Getting a win and three draws against the top seeds indicates that the team knew what they were doing. Sure they rode our luck in both games against Portugal, and indeed the Dutch outclassed Ireland (as they should) for periods in Dublin. But after soaking up pressure in all games, the Boys in Green held their own and thoroughly deserved the results they got.
Where they have come unhinged in past campaigns have been poor results against poor teams. No one can forget the 0-0 in Lichenstein, the capitulation to Austria, the 3-3 draw with Poland or the scrambled victories over Latvia and Iceland. This time the team imposed themselves on the lesser talents of Estonia and Cyprus, and combined with the results against the quality teams, it has been a recipe for success.
You could always argue that two 7-0 wins against Andorra rather than two 3-0 victories, or a few more goals against Estonia might have us in the driving seat now, but it is hard to complain with what the team have done.
For Mick McCarthy, it is a vindication of his policy of blooding young talent and developing a passing game where previously the direct style of the Charlton era had reaped so much success. For him also it is a powerful rebuke to the immense criticism that his broad shoulders have had to bear for so long.
Remember the Past
But a word of caution. After failing in three play-offs in a row, Ireland need to have learnt from their mistakes. Despite the achievements of the last 12 months, It is NOW that the hard work begins.
The Dutch outclassed us in 1995, the Belgians upset us in 1997 and the Turks frustrated us in 1999. In 2001, Ireland must deliver victory in their likely play-off clash against Asian opposition. And it is that which could prove to be the biggest hurdle. Of the ten teams that Ireland could meet, Saudi Arabia are the highest ranked at #35. It would be easy for McCarthy’s team to think that they now have one foot in the finals, but as has been proved three times in the last six years, you are not there until you are there.
NOW is the time when the hard work begins.