Ian Harte, Gary Breen and Matt Holland celebrate beating Iran over two legs.
IN SELECTED EXTRACTS from his book “Stuttgart to Saipan: the players’ stories”, Miguel Delaney talks to the Irish players about play-offs past.
Iran, 2002 World Cup
FOR THE PREVIOUS three play-offs – against Holland, Belgium and Turkey – Ireland had seen the finish line and “gulped” according to Niall Quinn.
This time, they fancied it. “That’s how much the team had grown up,” Quinn insisted.
By the build-up to the first leg at home to Iran, Roy Keane hadn’t appeared for Manchester United in almost a month and doctors advised him against air-travel. A deal was eventually struck with Alex Ferguson, however, whereby Keane would play the first leg and avoid an away match in Tehran if the result was deemed strong enough.
In the event Ian Harte hit a penalty and Robbie Keane volleyed home the clincher.
“The second goal was vital,” says Matt Holland. “And Shay Given’s performance was vital.”
Keane returned to Old Trafford but there was still more to overcome than the Iranian attack. Like the sound – and the fury – of 100,000 supporters.
“I couldn’t believe the crowd,” Holland says.
“They were in the stadium for four or five hours before the game. Normally you arrive and there’s no-one there but that’s the only time in my career I can remember walking into the stadium an hour-and-a-half before the game’s kicked off and it’s full. Hostile. As we were walking to the pitch there were things being thrown at us, bottles, fire-crackers.”
If ever a match required Keane this was it. Earlier in the campaign though, McCarthy had maintained “when Roy is missing, we don’t miss him that much because of Matt.” An exaggeration it may have been but Holland proved inspirational on the night. As did many other players.
“It was more than professional,” Holland gushes. “People were making runs they didn’t need to. Getting bodies back and that’s what you need.” Iran got a late goal but it proved irrelevant. Ireland were back in the big time. Eight years of frustration going up in the smoke of all those firecrackers.
“If you look back at the video where we’re celebrating you think ‘why am I doing that?’ But to be honest, you do just lose yourself. It’s all a bit of a blur. I can’t remember anything in detail. I was thinking ‘the World Cup!’ It’s the pinnacle. Magnificent.”
If also somewhat surreal. While the Irish players danced, many Iranian fans demanded blood. Giant banners of the Ayatolla Khomeini were ripped down and a lot more was hurled on to the pitch.
“It was intimidating. But it couldn’t take away from the fact we’d done it.”
Neither could assistant manager Ian Evans’s comment. “We’ve lost the bollocking unbeaten record.” They had. Sixteen games hadn’t become 17. But had become a World Cup. How, though, could they have a traditional celebration in a country where there was no champagne?
“We were throwing Lucozade over each other!”
Miguel Delaney’s book “Stuttgart to Saipan: the players’ stories” is available from Mentor