By Micil Glennon
It’s been a long time coming. 18 years, in fact. And the build-up to tonight’s game has inevitably involved much recollection of the last time the sides met.
Lansdowne Road, February 1995
With Ireland taking the lead through a David Kelly strike, and David Platt having a goal disallowed, hooligans among the visiting fans began a pre-arranged riot, throwing metal bars, seats and other missiles down on Irish fans, gardai and stewards in the stand beneath them.
Total chaos reigned. In the words of the FAI’s security officer, it was “a war zone”.
The game was abandoned after 27 minutes and since then various qualifying and tournament draws have kept the neighbours apart.
But preceding the appalling scenes of that February night, the Boys in Green and the Three Lions had become very familiar foes, playing out a series of intriguing competitive games between 1988 and 1991.
The first one stands out, ushering in as it did the golden era of Irish soccer under Jack Charlton. Ray Houghton’s early goal deciding the opening game in Ireland’s Euro 88 odyssey in Germany.
Two years later the sides met in the group stages of the Italia 90 World Cup and the Republic had Kevin Sheedy to thank for a share of the points in a 1-1 draw.
Sure enough, the teams were drawn together again for Ireland’s unsuccessful qualifying campaign for Euro 92 in Sweden.
Although England took the lead in both games, Tony Cascarino headed in a late equaliser in Dublin, while Niall Quinn levelled in Wembley, a match Ireland should have won.
And when the sides met for the abandoned game in Dublin, it was only seven months on from the World Cup in the USA, a tournament that England had failed to qualify for, while Ireland had bowed out in the Round of 16, but not before beating eventual finalists Italy.
It’s fair to say that the 1995 teams were peers; not so today. While England can boast numerous Champions League and multiple Premier League winners, you have to go to sixth place in this season’s English Premier League table to find the first Irishman, Seamus Coleman of Everton.
At yesterday’s press conference, Robbie Keane conceded that a significant gap has emerged since the good old days.
“Yeah, on paper you would suggest that [they have better quality]. On our day we can give anyone a game with our spirit and heart and how much it means to play with our country,” the 32-year-old LA Galaxy player told reporters, not more than eight hours after landing on a flight from the US.
Therein lies the best chance Giovanni Trapattoni’s men have of achieving a result against England. Just like their rugby counterparts, this game means more for Ireland players than it does for England, where most players get a regular taste of Champions League, World Cup and European Championship action.
Kyle Walker, Tom Cleverly and Andy Carroll have all dropped out, while Keane, Darren O’Dea and Aiden McGeady have all travelled considerable distances for the chance to step out at the famous stadium.
And next Sunday, when Ireland host Georgia, England will be at the Maracana to play Brazil. There is only one ‘glamour’ friendly on England players’ minds.
Keane’s desire to take part in this game should infect the rest of the players and with that in mind, the captain reckons a win is not out of the question.
“It wouldn’t be a massive upset…we’re quite capable of winning the game,” he said.
Trapattoni goes, once more, with a 4-4-2 but hinted that had Anthony Pilkington not pulled out (again), he may have opted for a 4-5-1. However, once Keane, who was initially refused permission to travel, had his own way there was no chance of him not starting.
Appeal for calm
England manager Roy Hodgson has appealed to supporters to show respect, recognising that the goodwill fostered between the associations and the players “can be undone very quickly by a minority”.
And while many young English fans will struggle to recall the last meeting at all, and many players recognise it only from replay, there is an understandable cautiousness surrounding the game.
Any political chanting or violence will surely sound a death knell on Keane’s suggestion that they make this fixture a regular occurrence.
These end-of-season friendlies can so often be as dull as ditchwater as both sets of players start thinking of sunny beaches and pina coladas.
But the importance of this game, coming as it does on the FA’s 150th anniversary, and in the shadow of the last renewal makes it more than a friendly.
The spirit that Keane referred to was missing, some might say criminally so, during the Euro catastrophe and the Germany trashing.
If it is to come alive again, it has to happen tonight, or else, like Fortress Lansdowne, the theory that we can ‘put it up’ to the bigger nations, must be consigned to history.
Ireland: Forde, Coleman, O’Shea, St Ledger, Kelly, Walters, Whelan, McCarthy, McGeady, Keane (c), Long.
England: To follow…