- Mark Kennedy blasts the balls towards the Yugoslavia goal
Most fans of a particular sport will be able to pinpoint with cherished nostalgia the occasion that sparked their love for the game and for the chosen team that played it. In this writer’s case it was a balmy autumn evening at the old Lansdowne Road stadium when Ireland came up against Yugoslavia in a crucial qualifier for the following year’s European Championships in Holland and Belgium.
As a 17-year-old from the West of Ireland the opportunity to experience top level sport in the flesh had been limited, so the chance to watch the Irish team face one of Europe’s most highly rated sides seemed like an opportunity not to be missed. Fate too seemed to play a hand in my presence. Having been resigned to watching the game from a book laden desk during my Leaving Cert exams the previous June the match was subsequently postponed. In the process the FAI was fined £25,000 by UEFA as the Irish government had refused to grant visas to the visiting team in protest against President Slobodan Milosevic’s regime and the war in Kosovo. 3 months later I sat in the old Upper West Stand about to embark on college life and hoping that my general sense of anticipation would be matched by the occasion. As dusk settled before kick-off the sense that a game of real importance was about to take place was reinforced by the site of the legendary referee Pierluigi Collina galloping down the touchline in a warm-up that would have left many players gasping for air.
As for the opposition, dissolution had long since deprived Yugoslavia of the expansive Balkan talent pool which had ensured their status as a footballing powerhouse for over half a century. However, the depleted Yugoslavs had impressed at the France ’98 World Cup finals, narrowly losing to Holland in the last 16 and they still possessed players of notable quality such as Stankovic, Mihajlovic and Mijatovic. Ireland had deservedly lost 1-0 in Belgrade, the previous year, although an impressive 2-0 home defeat of a high-flying Croatia side and wins over Macedonia and Malta had kept Irish qualification very much on track.
Bold McCarthy Tactics
- Robbie Keane in full flow versus Yugoslavia.
Rather than adopt a conservative approach against higher ranked opposition, as has been seen all too often in recent years, Mick McCarthy opted for a bold attacking policy with Kevin Kilbane and Mark Kennedy chosen as out-and-out wingers and ordered to take on the Yugoslav defence to supply ammunition to the little-and-large combination of Keane and Quinn up front. After a tense opening half of few clear-cut chances it was the latter combination that led to the first goal on 54 minutes, Quinn dummied a header from an Irwin cross to allow the 19 year old Robbie Keane to drill home a first-time drive into the far corner from the edge of the box. The following 15-minutes generated a heightened ebb and flow that is often seen as an essential characteristic of every memorable sporting occasion. Almost immediately after the opening goal Quinn came close to putting Ireland 2-0 up with a sublime chip over the back-peddling Yugoslav keeper Kocic who scrambled to tip the ball over the bar. The home crowd roared on the players for a second goal that would effectively sealed the tie. Every hint of attacking progress was met by a surge of noise that included the clank of the West Stand’s wooden seats returning to their unused position.
However, a 20 year old Dejan Stankovic then sucked what little air remained out of a breathless few minutes of football by finishing off a slick breakaway move typical of the Yugoslavs when he cleverly headed a ball back across the goal and past a flailing Alan Kelly on 60 minutes. Although Yugoslavia sought to maintain the silence of the crowd by re-establishing their dominance on the ball the Irish players continued to chase feverishly using every opportunity in possession to attack the Yugoslav defence. This ‘honesty of effort’, as Johnny Giles has often put it, was seized on by the crowd and drove the team on even further. On the 70th minute Mark Kennedy started another attack, collecting the ball wide on the right and moving centrally. With no attacking options readily available and the defender backing off, Kennedy blasted a spectacular 25-yard shot that swerved over the keeper and in off the crossbar. The stadium erupted.
A nail-biting final 20 minutes followed during which there was time for Alan Kelly to tip over a free kick from Mihajlovic and for Tony Cascarino to come on for a record 84th Irish cap. However Ireland hung on for the win and sat top of Group 8, one point clear of Croatia and two points clear of Yugoslavia. Automatic qualification looked secure as Ireland ran down the clock in their away qualifier against Macedonia when 1-0 up away in Skopje. However, a last minute equaliser consigned Ireland to a play-off place and a stormy narrow defeat to Turkey. As I left the ground that night in the knowledge that my lifelong support for the team had been assured I could not have predicted that, with the exception of the 1-0 victory over Holland in 2001, few such experiences would present themselves again in the intervening years.
- Video: Match Highlights
In an interview after the game Mick McCarthy said:
They were all superb. They gave our crowd a skilful and passionate performance to be proud of, and it was a case of interaction really, because the fans gave them all the support and appreciation they needed.
Let’s hope such a mutually beneficial relationship can bear fruit again in the crucial home encounters to come.
Republic of Ireland Team:
Alan Kelly, Denis Irwin, Steve Staunton, Kenny Cunningham, Gary Breen, Kevin Kilbane, Mark Kinsella, Roy Keane, Mark Kennedy, Niall Quinn, Robbie Keane.
Subs: Stephen Carr for Denis Irwin, Lee Carsley for Roy Keane, Tony Cascarino for Niall Quinn
Drazen Bolic, Slobodan Komljenovic, Miroslav Djukic, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Dejan Stankovic, Dejan Savicevic, Albert Nadj, Dejan Govedarica, Savo Milosevic, Pedrag Mijatovic, Aleksander Kocic.
Subs: Ljuinko Drulovic for Dejan Savicevic, Nisa Saveljic for Sinisa Mihajlovic, Sasa Kovacevic for Albert Nadj
- Author: Philip Dunphy