/ 14 November 2006

Irish out to raise the roof at Lansdowne Road

Irish football bids farewell to Lansdowne Road, its rickety old home stadium of 35 years on Wednesday in what could hardly be less auspicious circumstances.

A team in gradual decline since the Charlton era of the 1980s takes on San Marino, the smallest country participating in the Euro 2008 qualifiers — and officially the worst team in the competition.

It hardly compares to the Republic’s first international at Lansdowne Road in 1971 when they went down 2-1 to Italy who were World Cup finalists a year earlier.

Lansdowne is held in great affection by many supporters and its basic facilities, bumpy pitch and peculiar characteristic of trapping wind in a vortex — down one side of the pitch in particular — has been recognised by many great players and managers down the years as giving Ireland a proverbial 12th man.

The effect on the unsuspecting opponent was perhaps best summarised by Welsh rugby international Mike Watkins when he noticed the flags at the stadium were blowing in different directions.

”I thought the Irish had starched them just to fool us,” he said.

While the Irish teams have always played up the mystique of the oldest Test rugby stadium in the world, surprisingly, they have never qualified for an international tournament on the back of game at Lansdowne.

It has seen some classic moments in Irish soccer history though, witnessing home victories against the best in the world including Brazil.

But it has never, quite, seen a victory against bitterest rivals England who witnessed the stadium’s most ignominious moment. One nil up and cruising in a friendly in 1995, English hooligans began tearing up the seats and other parts of the stadium and launching their haul onto spectators below.

Irish police were neither prepared nor competent to cope and the match was abandoned after just 27 minutes.

This time around the demolition of the stadium is planned — starting next year and due for completion in 2009.

And Irish supporters can reasonably hope the last soccer international at the stadium will be marked by a goalfest against a team ranked 194th in the world.

But current manager Steve Staunton said nothing can be assumed.

San Marino are rooted at the bottom of Group D on zero points and zero goals with 20 conceded in just two games, but Staunton’s erratic tendencies match his team’s performances.

Despite his injury-ravaged squad securing a creditable 1-1 draw against the Czech Republic last month, the memory of the 5-2 thrashing against Cyprus five days’ earlier lingers for an Irish media bored by the prospect of watching a team being prepared for the World Cup in 2012.

They ridicule the normally bland statements any manager makes going into a game against minnows as another example of the strange commentaries and selections he gives in the lead up to games.

But he only has himself to blame. He has previously claimed to have seen players in league games that in fact had not taken place, and had consistently refused to select Lee Carsley — whose club form has been excellent all season — in a squad lacking an anchor midfielder.

That is until 14 injuries forced his hand against the Czech Republic and the combative Everton player’s presence gave the Irish a dimension previously unseen under Staunton.

This time around goalkeepers are the focus.

Shay Given is set to start despite not playing a club game for over eight weeks due to injury, while his deputy Paddy Kenny has been left out of the squad to give him time to cope with personal problems. But the Sheffield United stopper played at the weekend and does not want to be left out.

In other positions, Staunton has few problems though Steve Carr and Stephen Ireland withdrew at the weekend. The Ireland boss does not expect niggles to Carsley and Jonathon Douglas to prevent them from playing.

With strikers Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane finding the net over the weekend, and a San Marino squad that includes two new caps selected from Italian non-league football, the Irish will have no excuse for failing to do some demolition work of their own ahead of the real thing. – Sapa-AFP