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Dublin: 11°C Sunday 16 May 2021

Minnows, minnows on the ball: Ireland's record against the little guys

Ireland might be facing one of the worst teams in the world tonight but, historically, that hasn’t always translated to our best performances

Ireland's narrow 2-1 win over San Marino lead to a storm of criticism
Ireland's narrow 2-1 win over San Marino lead to a storm of criticism
Image: Inpho

TONIGHT IRELAND WILL be hoping to avoid adding a ski resort to a mountain-top. The latter was Peter Ball’s famous description of Liechtenstein on the day in 1995 when they somehow claimed a 0-0 draw off an Irish team that had 37 shots on goal.

Lightning is unlikely to strike again against an Andorran team that has yet to pick up a point in this campaign. But, although the assumption when meeting such minnows is always for a glut of goals, Ireland have a glut of memories which involve anxiety and tension rather than abandon.

Andorra, after all, had the temerity to actually take the lead when they went to Lansdowne Road in April 2001. Kevin Kilbane may have immediately equalised Ildefons Sola’s strike and Mark Kinsella put Ireland ahead just moments later but they were two of only six goals Ireland put past the microstate over two games. The most recent meeting last September followed that trend, with Giovanni Trapattoni’s team unconvincingly claiming a 3-1 win too.

And such difficulties are part of a pattern. The Euro 88 campaign in which Ireland finally made the breakthrough in terms of qualification saw them struggle to do the same against Luxembourg. Indeed, just like Andorra, the team that had just had six put past them by Belgium went ahead. Although Frank Stapleton equalised within minutes, Paul McGrath only got the winner a quarter of an hour from the end. In the previous meeting, it took Tony Galvin 44 minutes to get the first in a 2-0 win.

The following campaign then saw Ireland toil to secure a victory over Malta and a place at Italia 90. John Aldridge eventually scored twice but, as Packie Bonner explains, there is an underappreciated difficulty in such matches.

“I think going out to Malta, you’re confident you can overpower them but you’re never sure until you get that goal… you’re only one shot away from a mistake so concentration is the key for all those type of games, keeping people on their toes. As a goalkeeper you’re sitting at the back hoping we get this goal, hoping we get this goal. You know then when John Aldridge scored the first and then the second ‘we have it know’.”

That wasn’t quite the case when Ireland returned to the island 10 years later. Despite going 2-0 up after just 20 minutes through Robbie Keane and Gary Breen, two goals in seven seismic second-half minutes made it 2-2. Only a superb Steve Staunton free-kick prevented humiliation, even if the extent of the celebrations did bring some embarrassment.

The Irish players didn’t have the nerve to cheer when they managed a similarly ludicrous rescue operation in San Marino under Staunton during the Euro 2008 qualifiers though. Manuel Marini had looked to give a team that had recently conceded 13 against Germany only their third ever competitive point with a farcical equaliser four minutes from time.  Stephen Ireland produced one of his last meaningful acts for Ireland though with a scarcely deserved winner.

Even in such matches when Ireland haven’t struggled, however, they’ve never exactly scored many goals. It’s little surprise the country’s two biggest wins came under Eoin Hand’s management when a much more open – but certainly less secure – style of football was played. In 1980, Cyprus were swept aside 6-0 and three years later Malta were done for eight. They’re isolated results in Irish history though. The side have only scored five times in one match on eight occasions and four on 20. Essentially, that’s a goal glut every three years.  And the last came… three years ago.

Giovanni Trapattoni’s team, however, isn’t exactly setup for that kind of onslaught. Neither was Jack Charlton’s. And the side’s in-built security is only exacerbated then when they come up against teams – like Andorra – prepared to pack their penalty area. That was certainly what Matt Holland found against the Andorrans and another side Ireland were expected to annihilate, Saudi Arabia.

‘I guess over the years we had probably produced our best results as underdogs. The first goal settles you down. I remember against Andorra it was the same until Ian Harte scored a penalty. So the longer it goes, you’re thinking “is it ever going to come?”

Usually it does. Which leads many to question why microstates like Andorra bother with international football. There is of course local – or, indeed, patriotic – pride to play for though. That and, very occasionally, results like the Faroe Islands’ 1-0 win over Austria in 1990, Luxembourg’s over Switzerland’s in 2008 and – lest we forget – that draw with the mountaintop in 1995.

Against a ski resort tonight, expect more a snow-storm than an avalanche.

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