An infamous night in Skopje. Not so much a tangerine dream as an orange nightmare.
In 1997 Mick McCarthy’s hopes of emulating Jack Charlton by leading the Republic to a World Cup finals disintegrated when an ageing Irish side fell to a disastrous 3-2 balls-up in the Balkans.
A team that included a forward-line of Tony Cascarino and Jon Goodman (remember him?) posted one of the country’s worst ever international results.
McCarthy’s Ireland suffered further Macedonian heart-break when they succumbed to a devastating late equaliser two years later. A 95th minute goal denied Ireland a crucial win when they were just seconds away from qualification for Euro 2000. They subsequently perished in the Battle of Bursa, losing on away goals in the play-off against Turkey.
The prevailing train of thought says countries such as Macedonia have greatly improved since those infant days following the break-up of Yugoslavia. ‘There are no easy games in international football,’ is the saying. They have certainly made strides and boast a star in Inter’s Goran Pandev.
Macedonia drew 2-2 with Armenia in this campaign and were narrowly beaten 1-0 by Russia having missed a penalty.
Yet they are ranked 83rd in the world compared to Ireland’s 34th.
Has the standing of Ireland fallen so far, that many consider a four point haul from this Saturday’s game and the return leg to be a satisfactory outcome?
Ireland have beaten Macedonia twice at home with Saturday’s visitors yet to register a goal in Dublin. A 3-0 win in a World Cup qualifier in 1996 was followed by a 1-0 victory in June 1999.
Have we been so starved of success since, our self-esteem so battered after failures to qualify under Brian Kerr, and the catastrophic tenure of Steve Staunton, that Irish fans have lost all ambition?
Can this lack of confidence be anything to do with the Irish team’s stifling style under Giovanni Trapattoni when we struggle to put lesser teams to the sword in any convincing fashion?
We are not yet at the half-way point of this Euro 2012 campaign but such was the team’s capitulation at the hands of Russia at the Aviva Stadium that many have given up the ghost of automatic qualification.
There is still much football to be played in Group B. Other results may yet catapult Ireland back into the race for top spot. Yet, the uncompromising selection policy of the manager, and his, at times, incomprehensible explanations, not just as a result of something lost in translation, has seen Giovanni Trapattoni test the faith of the Irish supporters.
The James McCarthy saga will finally be laid to rest when the Wigan star takes to the field at some point on Saturday, as the manager has said he will. Trapattoni did not cover himself in glory during that episode, most notably saying he did not have the player’s phone number.
The Italian joked at this week’s press conference that McCarthy may only see two minutes action towards the end of the game this weekend. One can’t shake the feeling that the manager feels the need to introduce the midfielder, merely to put the Scotland question to rest once and for all, (He did the same in the eye of a similar Northern Irish storm) than any desire to see McCarthy in a starting line-up in place of the hopeless Paul Green for example.
It remains to be seen if Trap has ditched his conservatism and will gamble on the likes of Clark and Coleman against Macedonia. Clark has a chance of displacing Kilbane at left-back but Coleman seems likely to remain on the bench.
Keirin Westwood is an enforced change for the injured Shay Given, while Paddy Kenny, flying high at the top of the Championship with QPR, and a goalkeeper with actual international experience, was ignored by the Irish management who opted for Darren Randolph and former Derry City goalkeeper David Forde as cover.
It has been well documented how Andy Reid fell foul of the manager for alcohol-related misdemeanours on Irish duty. Yet Leon Best and Richard Dunne, smarting from disciplinary action at Newcastle and Aston Villa for similar stunts, were welcomed into the Republic’ bosom with open arms. Trapattoni continues to convey double-standards.
Macedonia are facing an Irish side in Dublin with established Premier League stars, and a number of players in rich veins of form such as Damien Duff, Shane Long, and others full of confidence like Walters, Coleman, and Foley.
Talk of four points against the Balkan side and ‘taking our chances’ in a play-off spot so early in the campaign is an indictment of Ireland’s ambition and the lack of faith of the Irish fans in the ability of the manager. It is arguably easier to try and win away games in Macedonia and Russia and finish first than to gamble on a play-off that we already know is weighted against us with the top seeded team enjoying home advantage in the second-leg.
The cold facts are that the Irish team’s destiny is in its own hands. If they win all of their remaining games, including away in Skopje and Moscow, they will top the group.
No one thinks the team is capable of achieving that aim.
The problem is that it is Giovanni Trapattoni’s job to make his players believe that they can.
Not yet half-way through but Ireland can still take their chances, of topping the group.