01.06.2002 at 07:30 Stadium Big Swan, Niigata
1 - 1
Republic of Ireland
Referee: Kamikawa Toru
World Cup Finals / PROG-match
Jason Mc Ateer
Republic of Ireland 1 Cameroon 1
The need for a positive result from Ireland’s opening match in the World Cup finals tournament in Niigata was critical. The pressure created by the surreal events of the past two weeks effectively ensured that Ireland’s elaborate build-up for the tournament was ruined, but in the face of adversity they reacted with typical courage and formidable strength of character.
When matters football should have been the only item on the agenda, attention was deflected elsewhere and focused on an issue entirely inappropriate to the context of the World Cup. It was entirely destructive, entirely self-defeating.
In consequence the match assumed an importance beyond imagination. To the observer the Irish management team and squad of players were relaxed and at ease before the game, but it could only have been a misconception.
Manager Mick McCarthy, must have known that defeat would have re-opened the entire regrettable episode that exploded with such destructive force in Saipan and initiated a critical re-examination of his stewardship.
The FAI have long since issued their verdict on the rights and wrongs of what happened and confirmed their total support of the manager and his stand. But public opinion is a powerful force and is fickle, unpredictable, emotional and entirely dictated by results.
In the prevailing circumstances Ireland’s performance in Niigata was full of merit. They were timid and indecisive in the first half, while Cameroon were full of menace.
Ireland had chances, most notably as Robbie Keane headed wide when afforded a clear header following a corner on the left after 22 minutes and again when Matt Holland headed wide under pressure seven minutes later.
Happily for Ireland, two players in particular excelled while Cameroon dictated the pace and the trend - goalkeeper Shay Given and Holland. Given’s save when he sprinted off his line to smother Eto’o after 18 minutes was hugely important, while Holland’s effectiveness and mobility in midfield marked him out as ‘Man of the Match’ before half-an-hour had gone.
Still the portents were ominous for Ireland as Eto’o opened a deep avenue through the middle of Ireland’s defence as he took a pass from the influential Geremi after 38 minutes. He skipped wide of Staunton and when Breen launched himself into a challenge, Eto’o slipped the ball past him for Mboma to score from 10 yards.
The transformation in the second half was almost beyond comprehension. Where Ireland had been hesitant they were now assertive; where they had been reactive, they were now dictatorial, where they had been second-best they were now dominant.
Mark Kinsella rose to offer Holland the support he needed to control midfield, Kevin Kilbane shed a cloak of ineffectiveness to suddenly eclipse Geremi, Gary Kelly grew in authority as he comfortably flitted through three different jobs.
The entire team was aggressive and animated in their football and although they had an escape when Geremi was wide after a mistake by Ian Harte, they were not to be denied.
Holland, fittingly, ripped home the equaliser in the 53rd minute with a controlled volley from 30 yards. Suddenly there was a swagger and a style to Ireland’s football that reflected the brimming confidence of a squad coming to terms with the only important abiding issue from the World Cup - the need to perform.
Robbie Keane’s beautifully struck shot from 25 yards rebounded off an upright as Ireland failed to break down a defence that helped Cameroon remain unbeaten for four years.
Keane’s busy work and Damien Duff’s elusiveness stretched Cameroon but the African and Olympic champions held on despite Ireland’s powerful finish.
Had the two diminutive strikers not been driven so deep in the first half - when Keane repeatedly dropped into midfield to seek the ball and to counter Mark Vivien Foe - they might well have inspired a famous victory.
Yet Ireland came out of a tense contest and coped with formidable opponents with morale high and their spirits enhanced. It was not the greatest performance this courageous squad have produced over the past two years but it was not possible to experience the honesty and the style of their football in this glorious setting and not feel proud of this Irish performance.
Cameroon exposed weaknesses in the Irish defence that will be more vigorously examined by Germany on Wednesday. The game also suggested that the partnership of Keane and Duff at centre-forward should be re-examined with consideration afforded to the option of playing Duff on the flank to better utilise his considerable skill.
The injury situation might well rule out some of the options McCarthy appears to have today with regards to team selection after excellent performances from substitutes Steve Finnan and Steven Reid.
But Ireland should take encouragement from this significant opening match from the ebullient spirit of a squad that is clearly united, clearly driven and clearly intent on following the example of the marvellous Matt Holland in progressing Ireland’s World Cup challenge to its limit.
When galloping Spurs full-back Stephen Carr was ruled out of Ireland’s World Cup squad by injury, it looked like a severe blow to Mick McCarthy’s hopes of fielding his strongest possible team. But the silver lining soon emerged in the shining form of Steve Finnan, whose performances for Fulham in the domestic campaign just ended were so consistently convincing, that they earned him a deserved place in the Premiership’s team of the season.
Ironically, the player who might have given even a fully fit Carr a run for his money, and who was himself carrying a minor knock last week, eventually lost out to Gary Kelly for a starting place on Saturday against Cameroon.
It came as no surprise, however, to most observers that his appearance at the start of the second half, after Jason McAteer’s withdrawal, coincided with the beginnings of a stirring Irish recovery.
The softly-spoken 26-year-old, whose clean-cut boyish appearance has more than a touch of Tim Henman about it, confesses that, with Ireland a goal down and struggling, he was both daunted and excited at the moment of making his debut in the finals of the World Cup.
“I was a bit nervous to get the shout at half-time,” he says, “but I was glad to be coming on then rather than while the match was being played because it was easier to get into the game. Warming up, you’re thinking ‘will I get on?’” Then Ian Evans gives me the shout and you’re walking back into the changing room thinking, well, this is what you’re here for, you’re playing in the World Cup. And, of course, you’re nervous.”
Indeed, what was virtually Finnan’s first touch, saw him surging deep into the Cameroon half, the kind of purposeful statement of intent which signalled that Ireland were ready, at last, to take the game to the opposition.
“I was happy with the way things went,” the Limerick-born Londoner agrees. “It was a bit cooler in the second half, the game opened up a bit, and with the chances that we had, we might have gone on to win it.
“Getting forward is naturally in my game, and because the game opened up, we were pushing forward and creating lots of chances. Hopefully, if we can do that again on Wednesday, we can create a few more.”
Right on cue, Nick, from Germany, invokes a ghost, wanting to know if the manager is under pressure and whether or not the team is committed to playing for him.
“Of course, there’s been big pressure on the manager for a number of years, wanting to qualify for a major tournament,” Finnan coolly replies. “We’ve done that, but what happened last week created even more pressure. But we’ll always play for the manager, no matter who it is, and want to do the best for him, for ourselves and for the country.
“It was disappointing what happened but we’ve had to look ahead and go out and play the games. That’s all we’ve got to concentrate on. The team spirit stays the same, we always want to play for the manager, no matter what the situation.”
And the situation now is that, thanks to the rival claims of Kelly and Finnan, the same manager is faced with the kind of headache which, for a pleasant change, won’t be keeping him awake at night.
IT is to Mick McCarthy’s credit that there was no note of triumphalism in his review of the dynamic events of Ireland’s opening match of the World Cup finals in Niigata. It is no secret amongst the media corps following Ireland’s progress over the past three weeks that some opinionated observers had already prepared McCarthy’s obituary as Ireland’s manager in anticipation of a negative result. Those with blinkered sight of this Irish team and what it’s been about these recent years once again were out of focus.
For this is a team of extraordinary character, resolve and ambition.
Steve Finnan put it best when a German journalist enquired of the level of spirit within the team since the trauma of recent past: “It’s the same as it’s always been,” said Finnan, “this squad is full of spirit”.
McCarthy conceded that Cameroon had the better of the first half when he offered a considered view on the drama of the opening match and added: “The players knuckled down in the second half and improved on their individual performances to such an extent that at times I thought we over-ran Cameroon.”
He immediately hit upon two influential figures and of Matt Holland - Ireland’s outstanding player with Shay Given - he said: “He has been outstanding from the day of his introduction. I paid him the biggest compliment during the qualifiers by saying we didn’t miss Roy Keane as much if he was playing, and I think that was apparent against Cameroon as well.
“It is great when you see Mark Kinsella get ‘man-of-the-match’ from one place and Matt get it from another, it highlights how well the two of them played.”
“At half time I thought we could play better and for certain people their performances were below their standards,” he said.
“One of the backroom staff had put a sign up on the wall saying: No regrets. So I told them not to come off at the full-time whistle regretting anything when perhaps they could have done a bit more.”
He then gave an insight into a little of his football philosophy when he said: “Do as well as you can individually. If you look after your own patch and make sure you play as well as you possibly can, collectively the team will take care of the rest.”
McCarthy would have been excused had he chosen to blow his trumpet a little, but that is not his style. The emphasis with him is always under-stated and so it was despite the obvious fact that several critical decisions he made helped to swing the game Ireland’s way so they were disappointed they did not win a match which, for 45 minutes, appeared beyond them.
The first important decision he made was to choose Gary Kelly instead of Steve Finnan. His decision was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that Finnan missed several days training because of injury but it also reflected the outstanding form of Kelly in training and of his consistently high spirits. “Gary is a terrific squad member, on and off the pitch,” said McCarthy.
Kelly was Ireland’s ‘Mr Fix-it’. He was outstanding at right-back, just as good when he filled in for the injured Jason McAteer in the second half and positively productive when he switched to left-back for the closing 15 minutes.
With Finnan making a huge impression in the second half, Kelly’s ebullient form has presented McCarthy with a problem. Said McCarthy: “At half time I asked Gary to play further forward and although he prefers to play right back he said: ‘Yep, no problem,’ and went and did it.”
Kelly epitomised the attitude of an Irish team that refused to let any crisis interfere with their desire to enjoy this World Cup and to fulfil their potential at this level to its limit. The confidence that empowered their football in the closing half-hour was positively uplifting. McCarthy’s preference for Gary Breen over Kenny Cunningham was also undoubtedly influenced by an injury that upset Cunningham’s training but he was fit for the game and available. Breen’s ability in the air was vital for Ireland against a big, powerful team and the threat he posed in their penalty area at corner-kicks was also influential.
This ability will be needed in full if Ireland are to deny a physically powerful Germany who will be particularly dangerous at set-pieces with so many tall men in their team. Significantly a majority of their goals against Saudi Arabia came from headers.
Ireland will face a more vigorous and more searching test on Wednesday but McCarthy said: “I’d be stupid if I said I was daunted by their record 8-0 win or scared by it. You’d think I was mad. I’m not. They are not better than Holland or Portugal, and I personally don’t think they are better than Cameroon.
“I am not being disrespectful to the German team because I think their results and performances since England beat them 5-1 have been better than England’s.
“They came through the qualifiers against Ukraine quite comfortably and that was a tough tie for them.”
“They are in the tournament now, they have huge experience, there is something about playing against Germany - a team representing a country with so many achievements. There is an aura about them in the competition. But we won’t be scared by them.”