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Two of Ireland's greatest footballers made their debuts on this day in 1998

Mick McCarthy took a young Irish squad to Olomouc for a futile friendly that proved to be quite significant.

FOUR MONTHS HAD passed, but the bruises from Brussels were still raw for Mick McCarthy and the Republic of Ireland players when they convened for their first game of 1998.

A Luc Nilis goal in the second leg of the previous November’s play-off secured a place for Belgium at the World Cup at the Boys in Green’s expense.

inpho_00009420 Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given dejected after the World Cup 1998 play-off defeat to Belgium. Source: INPHO/Billy Stickland

While the Belgians focused on competing against the best teams on the planet at the finals in France, Ireland had to be content with getting a headstart on preparations for the qualifiers for the 2000 European Championships, which would begin in the autumn.

McCarthy had three friendlies lined up, the first of which took his side off the beaten track to the Andruv Stadion in Olomouc, Czech Republic’s sixth-largest city. There, they faced a team who were also smarting from a failure to achieve World Cup qualification.

Having reached the final at the Euros in 1996, much was expected of the Czechs when the qualifying process kicked off for France 98. They were unable to deliver, however, missing out after finishing third in their group behind Spain and Yugoslavia.

Nevertheless, they would soon produce a reminder of their capability by advancing to Euro 2000 as the only team who could boast a 100% record in the qualifiers.

For Ireland, there was a mood for change in the aftermath of a second consecutive qualifying campaign that culminated in a play-off defeat.

With the likes of Andy Townsend and Ray Houghton making way, fresh faces were required and Mick McCarthy had options.

inpho_00012427 The Ireland team that started against Czech Republic on this day 22 years ago. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

By fielding the youngest Irish team in 75 years (the average age was 22), McCarthy handed out six senior international debuts in Olomouc on 25 March, 1998.

In one of six changes from the loss in Belgium, 19-year-old Leeds United full-back Alan Maybury was named in the starting line-up. The game marked the beginning of an esteemed Ireland career for Charlton Athletic midfielder Mark Kinsella, while Graham Kavanagh of Stoke City and Derby County’s Rory Delap also made their international bows from the bench.

The other two players who debuted on this day 22 years ago would go on to have major roles in shaping the fortunes of the Irish team for the best part of the next two decades. 

“The young lads are double-keen to come out here and play for Ireland,” McCarthy told reporters in his pre-match briefing. “I know the young lads and their enthusiasm for the game and I feel we might get a pleasant surprise because these are good young players.”

Blackburn Rovers winger Damien Duff had spent several months slaloming his way through Premier League defences by the time he was named in McCarthy’s team for the first time. 

The Ballyboden man, who turned 19 three weeks before the Czech Republic game, was also a key member of the Ireland team that finished third at the U20 World Cup in Malaysia the previous summer.

damien-duffradek-latal-2531998 Damien Duff and Radoslav Latal battle for possession. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Four months after being introduced as a half-time substitute against the Czechs, Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Robbie Keane would help Ireland to win the U18 European Championships in Cyprus.

Still only 17, the Tallaght teenager was in the midst of a stunning debut season for Wolves, which he ended as the club’s leading goalscorer in the First Division (Championship).

McCarthy admitted beforehand that the performance in Olomouc would take precedence over the result. At half-time he looked set to get both. Ireland took a ninth-minute lead when Gary Breen headed home after Gary Kelly’s corner was helped on by Gareth Farrelly. 

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Writing in the following day’s Irish Independent, Philip Quinn noted: “In the first half, when the Boys in Green had the Czechs at sixes and sevens with their slick passing movements and willingness to push forward, the wing wizardry of Damien Duff stood out.

“Shoulders hunched, Duff tormented his experienced marker, Radoslav Latal, with his close control, balance and eye for an opening. What a player Duff will be with a dozen games at this level under his belt.

“Robbie Keane, Ireland’s second-youngest international, showed flashes of rich promise when he came on at half-time.”

robbie-keane Robbie Keane in possession after coming on as a half-time substitute. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Four minutes into the second half, the hosts drew level through Vladmir Smicer, who was 15 months out from completing a move to Liverpool that would bring him a Champions League medal in 2005.

Slavia Prague midfielder Edvard Lasota won the game for the Czechs with 14 minutes left on the clock, but from an Irish perspective, the numbers on the scoreboard were a superfluous detail.

“The chill wind that depressed the temperature to near freezing in Olomouc last night failed to dispel the warm glow of satisfaction that enveloped the Irish dressing room after an interesting match of some significance,” wrote Billy George in The Examiner.

“A selection that contained more than a few tyro internationals came through a searching test against seasoned and experienced opposition, wise in the ways of international football, with much honour.

“They engaged a mature and talented opposition side, a team with a considerable physical advantage, with commendable courage and disputed the contest on terms that were totally refreshing.”

Delivering his post-match assessment to the Irish press, McCarthy said: “I am pleased with the fact that we played against a very strong team and competed in a lot of areas. They were better than us, I’m not going to suggest any other, but I have to be pleased with the way our young lads handled themselves.” 

rep-of-ireland-v-saudi-arabia Robbie Keane and Damien Duff celebrate after Duff's goal against Saudi Arabia at the 2002 World Cup. Source: PA

McCarthy added that it might be “expecting too much” of any of his young recruits to tip them as serious contenders to feature in the opening game of the European Championship qualifying campaign against Croatia at Lansdowne Road the following September.

Yet the starting line-up for Ireland’s 2-0 win over a team that had just finished third at the World Cup included Robbie Keane and Damien Duff alongside the likes of Roy Keane, Denis Irwin and Steve Staunton. 

Between them, Keane and Duff would amass a total of 246 international caps, 16 of which were won at major international tournaments.

RTÉ carried no television coverage from Olomouc, so just the 9,405 spectators in attendance witnessed the modest beginnings of two illustrious international careers.

Futile friendlies are seldom as significant.

CZECH REPUBLIC: Tomas Postulka, Lubos Kozel, Karel Rada, Radek Bejbl, Martin Cizeck (Edvard Lasota 71), Radoslav Latal (Tomas Vatova 85), Jiri Nemec, Karel Poborsky, Vladimir Smicer (Milan Fukal 89), Pavel Kuka (Vratislav Lokvenc 60), Jiri Novotny.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Shay Given, Alan Maybury (Robbie Keane 45), Kenny Cunningham, Gary Breen, Jeff Kenna, Mark Kinsella, Lee Carsley (Graham Kavanagh 85), Gareth Farrelly (Alan McLoughlin 61), Gary Kelly, Damien Duff (Rory Delap 74), David Connolly (Kevin Kilbane 85).

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Paul Dollery

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