The year football went home to Germany

 

THERE was more than just a trace of irony in the plot which ordained that Germany should be central to the drama of the 10th European Championship finals in England this summer.

Was not this the first occasion that the English FA had played host to the great and the ambitious, at international level, since the World Cup final at Wembley in 1966?

And had not Germany been involved in one of football's enduring controversies on that occasion, when they were on the sharp end of the doubtful decision which gave Geoff Hurst the second of his three goals?

The luck of the draw decreed that there was to be no repeat of that pairing in the final last June and yet, their semi-final meeting would enrich folklore and provide some of the meatier moments on offer in sport this year.

It was always in prospect, that German technical proficiency would establish them at the top, or close to the top, of the pile in the European Championships.

Teams like Italy, Holland Spain or Portugal might deviate into incompetence on occasions, but when lines were drawn and the pertinent questions asked Berti Vogts's squad, we suspected would deliver abundantly.

And yet, they almost came undone after England, divorced from the realities of competitive football for two years, had produced performances of widely-contrasting quality on their way to the last four.

Against Holland, they occasionally touched excellence. Spain would prove more abrasive opposition, but by the time they arrived at Wembley for the semifinal tie that would captivate the English public like no other since the World Cup final 30 years earlier, it was possible to work out a convincing case for survival.

Alan Shearer's early goal was an invitation to heroics, but eventually inevitably, perhaps it went into extra time and a penalty shoot out. Enter Gareth Southgate.

Alter all to penalties had been converted, Southgate experienced sudden death as he saw his shot parried at the right-hand post by Andreas Kopke.

To add insult to indignity David Seaman was comprehensively beaten by the ensuing German penalty from Andreas Moller and the great crusade was finally over for England.

Germany's subsequent win over the Czech Republic in the final said more about their character and their capacity to battle against the odds, than the fluency which had characterised some of their performances in the approach to Wembley.

Injuries and suspensions left Vogts with a team which only vaguely approximated his best formation. And yet, they recovered from the concession of a penalty and an early second-half lead for the Czechs, to win 2-1 in extra time.

Appropriately, at the end of one of the more romantic sporting stories of 1996, it was Oliver Bierhoff, a substitute, who got both the German goals, to illustrate that even in the direst of situations, Teutonic discipline is still unrivalled.

Ever since that memorable evening at Anfield, exactly a year ago, when Patrick Kluivert's goals gave Holland a 2-0 win in the first play-off in the history of the European Championship qualifying series, the Republic of Ireland knew that they would not be at the finals.

What we didn't realise at that point, was that the FAI would soon undergo the most profound changes in its history, after the timing of Jack Charlton's resignation had been bungled and set in train a sequence of events which would shake the organisation to its foundations.

The appointment of Charlton's successor, Mick McCarthy, was swiftly followed by a series of resignations which would deprive the association of such experienced legislators as Louis Kilcoyne, its president, Joe Delaney, the honorary treasurer, and Sean Connolly,, the general secretary.

It was a bad start to the FAIs 75th year, and the erosion of maturity at Merrion Square was matched only by McCarthy's decision to give youth its chance in the build up to the start of his 1998 World Cup qualifying programme in the autumn.

After summoning all the father figures of the Charlton era for his first game in charge, against Russia, the new manager delivered a firm declaration of intent by calling up the Middlesbrough pair, Curtis Fleming and Alan Moore, and Wimbledon's Ken Cunningham, among others, for the visit to the Czech Republic in April.

It was not until his fourth game in charge, against Croatia, that McCarthy managed to avoid defeat. It would take another three games to produce his first win over Bolivia in the Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

Appropriately, it was two of the emerging players in the squad, Keith O'Neill and Ian Harte, who divided up the goals that day, and they were on the scoresheet again when Liechtenstein were met and mastered 5-0 in the first World Cup game in Vaduz.

The 3-0 home win over FYR Macedonia which followed would accentuate the growing feeling of euphoria but then, sadly, came the anti-climax, when a scoreless draw against Iceland's modest team, saw two points disappear out of reach.

By capping 10 new internationals since coming to power, McCarthy's has ensured his impact has already been considerable. Now, as he prepares to head into the second and decisive year of his term of office, he will looking to players like Gary Breen, O'Neill and, perhaps, David Connolly to point the way to a third consecutive appearance in the World Cup finals.

The sudden retirement of John Aldridge from international football after the Icelandic game, marked the departure of one of the more colourful members of the squad. But after failing to appear on McCarthy's last nine teamsheets, the indications are that Paul McGrath may be back on the team in the New Year.

At club level, Ajax were the team of the year in Europe and if the level of Manchester United's performances fell steeply in recent months, Eric Cantona's winner against Liverpool in the FA Cup final, ensured that the big double in England was completed yet again.

On the domestic front, St Patricks' second championship success in six years was a triumph for the managerial skills of Brian Kerr, as much as the resilience of his players, but the FAI Cup was lost to Shelbourne in a replay.