Nerve-wracking viewing as Ireland do it the hard way
OVER THE past number of years ‘Inside Right’ has religiously taken his place in the stand in Lansdowne Road or Croke Park for Ireland’s qualifying games for the European Championships or World Cup, but on Saturday circumstances dictated that the match against Macedonia would have to be watched from the comfort of the sitting room couch.
Ah well, at least the journey was a short one, from the kitchen to the sofa instead of the usual 200-mile round trip and, judging by the sparse attendance, many other regulars were watching from a similar vantage point.
‘Inside Right’ took up his position in front of the TV at about twenty past seven, with a can of lager in hand and bowl of crisps at the ready, in anticipation of a good showing from the boys in green.
To make things a tad more interesting, yours truly decided to place a small wager on the action.
Although partial to the odd flutter on the gee gees, you could count on one hand the number of bets yours truly has placed on soccer.
Ireland at 8/15 was a touch skimpy at the kind of modest stakes we’re talking about so the not so brave decision was taken to double them up with ‘dead certs’ Greece to beat European minnows Malta, making it about an even money shot - surely to God that leg of the bet couldn’t go west.
When seeing the small crowd that had turned out, largely due to financial hardships, ‘Inside Right’ didn’t mind missing out on the live atmosphere quite as much and wouldn’t have been ‘treated’ to Robbie Keane’s stirring rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann had we been in D4 rather than the sunny south-east.
The sound man surely could have shown a bit of decorum and turned the volume down a decibel or two for that - the Ireland captain’s attempts at singing made Dustin the Turkey sound like Luciano Pavarotti.
Thankfully Robbie’s better at putting the ball in the net than singing sweetly.
With the Greece match starting 15 minutes before the Ireland one, a quick check of teletext showed that the floodgates had yet to be prized open by the former European champions, but no sweat, it was surely only a matter of time, wasn’t it?
When the fired-up Aiden McGeady shot Ireland ahead with little more than a minute on the clock it looked as if we were in for an easy night - feet up and lounge back as another can was cracked open.
When Robbie Keane availed of another gift-wrapped present from Macedonian ‘keeper Edin Nuredinoski midway through the half it appeared to be plain sailing and even though seeing the unfortunate Kevin Doyle limping off early in the game was a blow, it looked as if Ireland would manage just fine without the services of the current player of the year.
With the Macedonian netminder performing in Frank Spencer-esque fashion, yours truly was shouting ‘shoot’ at the television any time an Irish player got within an asses roar of the goal, but unfortunately they didn’t heed the couch potato instructions often enough.
Another nimble glance at the teletext when a break in play allowed showed the Greeks had still failed to make the breakthrough with the game approaching half-time, but still no need for panic - a tiring Malta were bound to be as porous as a clapped-out colander in the second-half.
Then came the first moment of real concern when Ivan Trichkovski deceived Richard Dunne and stylishly slotted past Keiren Westwood. The calm waters had experienced the first ripple.
Here we go again - could Ireland’s old habit of failing to put a game to bed come back to haunt them?
The early exchanges in the secondhalf didn’t exactly do a whole lot to restore the brittle confidence, with the midfield pairing of Darron Gibson and Glenn Whelan seemingly incapable of stringing two passes together.
Macedonia’s Boban Grncharov should have got his marching orders for a horrendous high tackle on Shane Long, which would have made life a whole lot easier, but referee Istvan Vad bottled it and only issued a yellow card.
The challenge would have been more in keeping with a Jackie Chan flick than a soccer international and, with the Reading striker needing stitches to he head and ear, it’s incredulous that the man in the middle didn’t deem it serious enough for a red card.
Time for a large gulp of beer as on 75 minutes the lively Trichkovski got another clear sight of goal but thankfully Westwood kept his side ahead with a great block.
The teletext was still saying that Greece were deadlocked with Malta - surely there must be a problem with the RTE updates, so the laptop was switched on to see what was really happening.
A quick search revealed that, with 83 minutes gone, it was still indeed scoreless, and then disaster struck, as Socratis Papastathopoulos was sent off with six minutes left.
Yours truly would have cursed him up in knots, but with the length of his name and a few cans consumed by this stage, the proper pronunciation was a bridge too far.
It looked as if ‘Inside Right’s’ efforts at gambling was turning into a Greek tragedy, but when all looked lost then came the sweetest salvation.
A header from Vassilis Torosidis with the last touch of the game helped the ten men claim a dramatic win that moved them to the top of Group F, and more importantly it could improve this writer’s bettting balance by a couple of digits. Vassilis you beauty! Was it ever in doubt?
Part one in the bag, now Ireland just had to hold out for little more than five minutes to complete the job.
A tense finale was in store but seeing the talented James McCarthy running onto the field with a couple of minutes remaining to finally end the long-running tug of war warmed the cockles and the Wigan Athletic midfielder showed plenty of urgency in his brief forays.
Three minutes of injury-time came and went and Ireland were celebrating a crucial, if not overly impressive, victory.
Next up is the return match with the Macedonians in June and judging by Saturday’s evidence it will be a big ask to pick up three points in Skopje.
With the poor performance of the central midfield partnership in the Aviva, maybe Giovanni Trappatoni should take a leaf out of ‘Inside Right’s’ book and take a gamble on James McCarthy.
James McCarthy in action against Slavcho Georgievski (left) and Mario Gjurovski of Macedonia.