Ireland fans at Lansdowne Road on 1 September, 2001. INPHO

Apocalyptic intent and gladiatorial confrontations - snapshot of a September showdown

As Stephen Kenny prepares to name his squad on Thursday for next month’s World Cup qualifiers, the Republic of Ireland manager praises history-chaser Ronaldo for setting an example to all internationals.

SEPTEMBER 1, 2001.

A date that might not instantaneously transport you the moment, but three words will: Keane on Overmars.

Maybe even two would do: The tackle.

Succinct descriptions of sporadic moments of joy in Irish football are only ever needed.

Houghton’s header.
Bonner’s save.
O’Leary’s peno.
McGrath in Giants Stadium.
Robbie in Ibaraki.
Long against Germany.
Brady in Lille.

So, September 1, 2001.

The afternoon Jason McAteer caressed a half volley into the top corner and Lansdowne Road went wild before eventually qualifying through a play-off for the 2002 World Cup.

Ireland haven’t been back since.

After the event it is easy to distil that moment in time into something convenient. As always, plenty more was said and written leading up to it.

roy-keane-and-marc-overmars-digital Roy Keane leaves Marc Overmars in a heap. INPHO INPHO

“Dicing with the Apocalypse,” was the headline on the front page of the Sports section in the Irish Independent on the morning of the game.

“Lansdowne showdown to define McCarthy’s reign as Ireland boss,” it continued, with then Sports Journalist of the Year Vincent Hogan setting the scene.

“The noise of the DART pounds down so hard, you can feel the change in your pockets rattle. Mick McCarthy sits in the little media room, juggling a plum. His eyes steal gloomy signals from those before him, a largely corpulent throng.

Holland have come to town with apocalyptic intent, and the wonder is that Ireland haven’t summoned the navy to close all ports. The country trembles, yet McCarthy smiles an electric smile.

“On the eve of a game that he admits will define the last six years of his existence, he looks impassive. Questions seem immaterial now. So we pick at the privacy of his thoughts and he just chuckles back.

“Then, finally, the light goes off. ‘Look,’ sighs the Irish manager. ‘Talk is cheap. Words won’t matter tomorrow. It’ll be actions that matter. The actions of the players.’

His colleague Phillip Quinn added: “Five years and nine months after Jack Charlton’s reign as Republic of Ireland manager was halted by Holland, Mick McCarthy’s tenure at the top hinges on avoiding defeat against the familiar orange-clad foes.

jason-mcateer Jason McAteer's shot flies past Edwin van der Sar. INPHO INPHO

“If the Irish fail in today’s gladiatorial World Cup confrontation McCarthy will have had three unsuccessful stabs at steering his team to a championship final.

“And he, more than anyone, would better than to expect a contract extension from the FAI.”

Hogan, for his part, sounded a familiar caveat. “Yet, the bigger picture – the image of an ordinary team beginning to crest extraordinary possibilities – now penetrates even the most malignant prejudice. McCarthy’s team consists of one world class player and a clot of largely humdrum professionals.”

What current manager Stephen Kenny would do for one individual of the calibre of Keane, or the rest of the “humdrum clot” that afternoon: Shay Given, Gary Kelly, Richard Dunne, Steve Staunton, Ian Harte, McAteer, Matt Holland, Kevin Kilbane, Robbie Keane and Damien Duff.

stephen-kenny-with-keith-andrews-and-anthony-barry-after-the-game Ireland boss Stephen Kenny (centre) with assistant Keith Andrews (left) and coach Anthony Barry. Attila Trenka / INPHO Attila Trenka / INPHO / INPHO

Kenny’s own 1 September showdown is fast approaching: acclaim or infamy seem the only options. This being the Irish way.

He names his squad on Thursday for the World Cup qualifiers with Portugal (1 Sep), Azerbaijan (4 Sep) and Serbia (7 Sep). He will scour the injury reports that come his way following this weekend’s action. As always there will be issues to contend with.

Kenny’s well aware of the ones already there.

Ireland have lost their opening two Group A games, defeats in Belgrade and against Luxembourg in Dublin souring even the most optimistic tongues.

History is on the horizon, though.

Cristiano Ronaldo has it in his sights as he eyes the one goal needed to take him clear of Iran hero Ali Daei for the record of top international scorer in the history of men’s international football.

110 is the magic number.

0-0 in Faro would be manna from heaven for Kenny.

I wanted the goal that was over the line against Serbia [earlier in qualifying], I wanted to retrieve that, I want him (Ronaldo) to reclaim that goal so we can get that over it,” Kenny joked. “I don’t know if you saw the goal, it was a yard over the line and it would have been a good win for Portugal.

“Listen, he’s phenomenal, 109 goals, he doesn’t seem in a hurry to retire. He just seems to want to keep going so you have to have absolute respect for that.

“He seems to have just have an incredible level of professionalism in terms of how he treats his body and recovers from games.

“There are countless stories of his coming back from Champions League games at all hours in the morning to be met by a team of masseurs, get off the bus and into ice baths at all hours to recover quicker and push the boundaries. It is an incredible level of professionalism.”

Kenny’s admiration for Ronaldo’s efforts go deeper than that, and allied with Italy’s triumph at Euro 2020 it only seems to reinforce his own ideals.

imago-20210623 Cristiano Ronaldo is one away from a men's record 110 international goals. Imago / PA Images Imago / PA Images / PA Images

“For his attitude to playing for Portugal. It’s a good lesson for every player in international football, that international football should be the pinnacle for every player. Playing for your country can be immense.

“No one showed that as well as, probably the team that showed it to the greatest level was probably Italy having won Euro 2020. You could see it from day one in the tournament, there was sort of that selflessness in the group.

“There was no individual that was amazing, and then to win it like that, it was interesting to view as well, something that is important as well.

That sense of Irishness is very, very important to us and we mustn’t ever lose faith in that. No one should ever not turn up for an international game for any reason, really. It should always be the pinnacle and we need to always have it that way.

“I think it (playing for your country) is something that is terrific and important because our sense of Irishness and our national identity, our cultural identity,” Kenny continued.

“But also our football identity that we are trying to create and the culture within that. We want the two to align and be able to play in a progressive way, and have that passionate, real national feeling and feeling of playing for your country and the immense pride that must bring.

“So it’s to try and achieve that.”

1 September awaits again.

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