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Henry's handball broke Irish hearts in 2009.
Henry's handball broke Irish hearts in 2009.
Image: Sky Sports

Heroism and heartbreak: the ups and downs of Ireland’s play-off history

Ireland are no stranger to qualification play-offs for major tournaments. Here, we look back on our record over the last 15 years.
Oct 12th 2011, 9:09 AM 894 4

AH, THE OLD two-legged play-off. We’ve missed you.

We won’t know until tomorrow the identity of our opponents in next month’s Euro 2012 showdown, but that hasn’t stopped us from reflecting on our previous play-off experience.

Some of it is encouraging. Much of it, less so.

Here’s what the history books have to say, starting with a mass odyssey to Anfield in the winter 1995.

Euro 96: Netherlands 2-0 Republic of Ireland

Back in December 1995, Irish football was still riding the crest of a wave which had started in Stuttgart seven years previously and had carried us to Turin and the Giants Stadium. Strange as it may sound now, we almost expected to qualify for major tournaments regularly.

But after a big win over Portugal, we faltered badly in qualification, slipping up against Austria (twice) and drawing 0-0 in Liechtenstein. Our reward was a one-legged play-off against Holland in Anfield.

In theory, it was a chance for us to avenge our defeat at the previous year’s World Cup. The reality was rather different as two Patrick Kluivert goals ended Ireland’s hopes and drew the curtain on the unforgettable Charlton era.

World Cup 1998: Republic of Ireland 2-3 Belgium (agg.)

It’s the hope that kills you in the end, no matter how misplaced that hope may be.

But who could blame us? Denis Irwin’s sweet left peg gave us an early first-leg lead against Belgium and, all of a sudden, moonlit dancing on the Champs-Elysees seemed to be a very real possibility.

The final scoreline might suggest that Ireland were never that far away from closing out the job, but to be fair, it flattered us.

Belgium dominated in Dublin and were clinical in Brussels. Even when Ray Houghton snatched an equaliser against the run of play in the second leg, the slim possibility of progress was quickly dashed by tormentor-in-chief Luc Nilis.

We were all set for another summer at home.

Euro 2000: Republic of Ireland 1-1 Turkey

Make no mistake about it — whatever about the near misses and what might have beens of previous campaigns, Ireland should have qualified for Euro 2000.

Conceding an injury-time winner to Davor Suker and Croatia in Dublin dented our challenge rather than derail it entirely. We still travelled to Skopje in October 1999 knowing that a redemptive win would see us top the group. All would be forgiven.

Another injury-time goal forced us into a play-off against Turkey; a tough opponent, but by no means unbeatable.

These two-legged affairs last for 180 minutes but can change in a matter of moments, as we soon discovered. In the period between Robbie Keane opening the scoring and picking up the yellow card that would see him miss the second leg, Lee Carsley had gift-wrapped an opportunity for Tayfur to equalise from the spot.

From a position of undeniable strength, we found ourselves travelling to Bursa in search of a goal. It never came.

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World Cup 2002: Republic of Ireland 2-1 Iran (agg.)

There’s a very good reason why most Irish football supporters can remember the details of the World Cup 2002 play-off against Iran. For a change, we actually won.

It was everything that a two-legged play-off should be. A comfortable 2-0 win at home, courtesy of Ian Harte and Robbie Keane; no killer away goals conceded. A resilient performance on the road in Tehran, even if it wasn’t entirely without its nervous moments.

Mercifully, Yahya Golmohammadi’s header came a fraction too late to really affect the tie. After eight years in the major tournament wilderness, Ireland were heading east.

World Cup 2010: Republic of Ireland 1-2 France (agg.)

Two years on, the pain of Paris 2009 still lingers.

It wasn’t just that Ireland’s World Cup dream was crushed by a moment of cheating so blatant that it couldn’t even be passed off as “gamesmanship” or some other wishy-washy euphemism.

What really stung was that the Irish players had played out of their collective skin just to get to that point. They travelled to Paris for the second leg knowing that they needed a goal and morphed into a ballsy and adventurous attacking unit, the like of which had never been seen before in the Trapattoni era.

Indeed had Damien Duff showed a bit more composure when one-on-one with Hugo Lloris, the game could have been over long before Henry’s intervention in the 103rd minute.

Ireland might not have made it to South Africa had Henry kept his hands by his side and let the ball bobble out of play. The galling thing is, we’ll never know.

As it happened: Ireland v Armenia

Trap awaits another date with destiny

Gallery: Ireland seal Euro 2012 play-off spot

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Niall Kelly


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