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End of an era as Ireland's veterans pass the baton


If tonight's match feels difficult and disconcerting for the Republic of Ireland, it will not just be because of the German opposition. This qualifier at the Aviva Stadium is the start of a new era for Irish football, or at least a preparation for one.

The national team has been supported for a generation by Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane. But tonight's game will include none of them, the first competitive match without one of that quartet for 15 years.

The last time was 11 October 1997, in a qualifier for the France '98 World Cup at Lansdowne Road against Romania. It was just over three years after USA '94, and Ray Houghton and Tony Cascarino were still playing, but after that game a 21-year-old Given, who had already been capped, came in for the two-legged play-off against Belgium to reach the finals.

The teenaged Keane, who was part of Ireland's winning team at the 1998 European Under-18 Championship with Dunne, made his international debut that year, along with Duff. The next 14 years are well-known.

Their last great effort, it seems, was to take Ireland to the European Championship this summer in Poland and Ukraine. It was a difficult tournament for Giovanni Trapattoni's team, looking very much like a side whose players, ideas and approach were all out of date. Given and Duff, who won 225 caps for the Republic between them, both decided to end their careers later in the summer. Keane and Dunne decided to fight on, hoping to take Ireland to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.

But neither of that pair, with 197 caps in total, is fit for tonight's game against Germany. Dunne has not played all season and, with Paul Lambert so keen to rebuild Aston Villa around younger, hungrier names, he is not certain to get back in. Keane failed a fitness test yesterday morning.

Arguably the peak of that generation came in the 2002 World Cup. Keane scored an added-time equaliser against Rudi Völler's Germany to help Ireland into the last 16. He was 21. James McCarthy was just 11 years old. Seamus Coleman was 13. But they will both start tonight. John O'Shea will be captain.