When Croatia did it for Irish boys

 

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND v CROATIA:Some of Ireland’s senior squad will remember tomorrow’s foes fondly, as they once helped them achieve European glory

THE REPUBLIC of Ireland may kick-off tomorrow as outsiders in Group C even to make it through to the quarter-finals but for a handful of the squad’s senior players, the idea of coming away from the European Championship with winners medals isn’t far-fetched at all.

In the summer of 1998, John O’Shea, Richard Dunne and Robbie Keane left Scotland and Cyprus as Uefa champions. The Under-16 side that included the Waterfordman beat Italy to clinch their title in Perth, while the Dubliners were key members of an Under-18 team that overcame Germany on penalties in their final.

To get to their final, though, the Under-18s needed a very big favour from Croatia, who turned the group on its head in the last round of games by beating England 3-0.

The Croatians will scarcely try to call that particular debt in tomorrow but some of their players, past and present, have been reminded about it by the press in the build-up to tomorrow’s game.

There was, according to Keane’s marker in Ayia Napa, Goran Sablic, a common bond between the two sides.

“Together,” he laughs, “we were rooting against the English.”

With Ivica Olic out injured, goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa is the only survivor of the tournament set to play tomorrow. Fourteen years ago he conceded five against Ireland in a 5-2 win that announced Brian Kerr’s side as serious contenders.

Keane got one and was centrally involved in two of the other first three, and went on to have an exceptional tournament. But he couldn’t find the net in the second game against an England side that included three defenders – Jonathan Woodgate, Matthew Upson and Luke Young – who would go on to represent their country at senior level.

Instead, Alan Smith scored late in a second half the Irish dominated and England looked to be on the way to the final with one round of games to go.

At this point their manager, Howard Wilkinson, made a monumental faux pas. A matter of hours before his players were due to take on the Croats and Ireland were scheduled to play the hosts, he bumped into his Irish counterpart and began to moan about a three-hour reception that had been organised for the finalists a couple of days later. He would not, he insisted, be bringing his players. He was, as it turned out, right on that score.

“I said to Noel (O’Reilly) as I came away today,” observed Kerr later that evening: ‘If we get through tonight they can keep the lads at the reception for 10 hours, for all I care’.”

Sure enough, while Ireland cruised to victory (Dunne set up Barry Quinn for one of the goals with a superb cross), Branko Banovic put Croatia ahead from the penalty spot and Mihael Mikic added two late on to wrap up a win that dramatically changed the look of the group table.

A delighted O’Reilly described the Croats afterwards as “a bit of a Dundalk”, as the Oriel Park outfit’s win over Shelbourne on the last day of the season just finished had enabled the club he and Kerr had long been associated with, St Patrick’s Athletic, to win the league title.

Ireland, Sablic recalls, then gate-crashed the celebratory dinner the Croats were having for making the third place play-off. Later, O’Reilly, on guitar, and most of the squad, serenaded the departing England players from below their rooms around the hotel pool with a variety of sing-along classics, most memorably John Denver’s Leaving On A Jetplane.

“I never really thought we’d lose against Cyprus,” said a delighted Kerr at the time. “The real worry was the other game, though. Fair play to Croatia, we knew they were a good team and that it took some performance by us to beat them 5-2. They went out and went for it and so I’m delighted that they’ve earned themselves a place in the third place play-off.”

Just like their nation’s senior team at the World Cup (where Slaven Bilic had played), Pletikosa and Co won their bronze medals, beating Portugal 5-4 in a penalty shoot-out.

Then, just 79 days after the under-16 success in Scotland, Ireland became the first country ever to complete a double of European title in the one year by overcoming Germany, again on spot-kicks.

Keane had a good game that night, the highlight being when he beat Thomas Lechner and Sebastian Deisler before holding off Marcel Rapp and playing in Alan Quinn for Ireland’s goal, but he subsequently missed his penalty.

Dunne, meanwhile, was magnificent and was entitled to bask in it all. “Basically, on our day we’re the best team in Europe,” he observed, while Keane expressed understandable satisfaction that the team’s one defeat had not cost them more than pride.

“We were definitely the best team in the group,” the then teenage Wolves striker said. “We dominated two of our games and just didn’t play on the night against England but now that doesn’t matter.”

Kerr, meanwhile, made an observation that has a certain resonance as some of those players prepare for Poznan this weekend.

“What happened with this team is that they won so many games that eventually they started to think they were a little bit invincible. If they can carry a little bit of that with them into the senior game, then it’ll be good for them in the years ahead.”

In fact, the loss to England was the team’s only defeat in 20 games by the end of the tournament. Keane and his current team-mates are unbeaten in 14 outings.

A couple of months after the second of the tournaments had been won, meanwhile, a Croatia missing some key players came to Dublin for a senior European Championship qualifier and were beaten again with Keane, Damien Duff and Shay Given all included in the starting line-up.

Afterwards there was talk of shoring things up defensively for the trip to Belgrade the following month by playing Keane in the centre of a three-man central midfield. It has a slightly familiar ring to it after this week’s events in Budapest and Gdynia but the Keane in that instance was Roy.

Giovanni Trapattoni is adamant he believes in the players that he has but how he must wish deep down that the same sort of option was available to him for some for the tests that are coming over the next 10 days.