Cantwell relives the crack and the sadness of Paris

Phil Shaw encounters the Republic's 'towering force' of three decades ago - Noel Cantwell (pictured left) - whose makeshift team also travelled to a neutral ground, the Parc des Princes, for a play-off that meant qualification for a major tournament finals in England. The prize against Spain was a place in the 1966 World Cup
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What Jack Charlton would have made of it is anyone's guess. The Sixties are in mid-swing and the Republic of Ireland team, who face the game of their lives within 24 hours, are out watching the dancing girls of the Folies Bergere.

Charlton's Ireland have a reputation for post-match partying. Victories were more scarce in the days when Noel Cantwell was the Republic's most- capped player, which may explain why, on that Parisian night, they were getting their celebrations in first.

"We didn't have a drink," Cantwell assured me with a twinkle in his eye in the lounge bar of his pub in Peterborough. "But the crack was good, and then we went back to our hotel."

Tonight, this 63-year-old son of Cork will be another member of the Green Army roaring Charlton's team on against the Netherlands. In the French capital 30 years ago last month, Cantwell was leading from the front, or rather the back, as the Republic's centre-half and captain against Spain.

That match was also a play-off for the last place in a major tournament in England. Whereas Irish sights are currently set on next summer's European Championship finals, Cantwell's mind raced with thoughts of the 1966 World Cup as he joined the Football Association of Ireland's charter flight to France at Heathrow.

Fate was doing its bit for the Republic. Syria withdrew from their qualifying section on political grounds. Then, after they had followed a 1-0 win in Dublin over the only other team left in the group, Spain, with a 4- 1 away defeat, a third match was ordered by the game's world governing body, Fifa.

"When Spain came to Dalymount Park I played up front," Cantwell recalled. "The crowd there got behind you if you were enthusiastic and whacked a few people, so after five minutes I charged into the keeper, who was a huge fella, about 6ft 4in.

"He gave me a real mouthful, but soon another cross came in right under the bar. I ran at him, but didn't touch him. Instead I shouted at him, and he palmed the ball straight into the net. When he was asked later what'd happened, he pointed to his head and said: 'Centre-forward... he loco'."

Spain, then European champions, staged the return in Seville. "That was an incredibly partisan place, with 30,000 jammed in. If they needed a result, they took teams there rather than Madrid. No one got out of there winning."

The Republic were no exception, and Joe Wickham, genial godfather of the FAI, was left to negotiate a neutral venue. "We were hoping for Goodison or Old Trafford," Cantwell said. "There was a rumour that we took a bung to go to Paris, which Spain wanted, but I was told it was done on the toss of a coin."

So, via the Folies, to the Parc des Princes, where Irish tricolours were swamped by Spanish flags in the 40,000 crowd. Cantwell was back in defence with his Manchester United colleagues, Shay Brennan and Tony Dunne, while Eamon Dunphy, just out of his teens, made his debut in midfield.

The Irish Times described Cantwell as a "towering force" in a gallant rearguard action. But with 11 minutes left, Lopez Ufarte hit the only goal, and frantic pressure could not force extra time.

"They were better than us, and I remember Luis Suarez was a different class," Cantwell admitted, "but it was a sad night because we'd never been so close to the finals."

He does not, however, believe it holds any omens for Anfield, for they were very different times. "For a start, you had to be born in the Republic. We didn't have enough top-class players, so you'd have someone like Johnny Giles alongside a Fourth Division player or part-timer from the League of Ireland.

"Also, most of our games were friendlies. I never played in Belfast, for example, but I often played in Prague and Warsaw. They were the only invitations we got. We played at Katowice once with 110,000 there. Very few Westerners had been there since the Communists took power, and people were just staring at us on the bus.

"Another thing was that we never had the luxury of having matches called off the Saturday before an international - and our home games were on Sundays. It was nothing for me to play somewhere like Ipswich, change quickly, get a lift or a taxi to the station, and try and make the ferry from Holyhead or Fishguard.

"I might have a pint and then I'd get my head down on a bunk. Sometimes I got into Dublin at 7am and we'd assemble at the Gresham hotel at midday after Mass. You could be playing Italy, but there was no time for tactical discussion. You just went up to Dalymount and got stuck in."

The match fee was pounds 50 and the most modest expenses, such as a pounds 5 taxi fare, routinely challenged. Even the kit was archaic. When he was with West Ham, Cantwell took his own shorts over. He can still see Giles pulling a pair with a 38-inch waist over his head.

All the same, he was proud to represent his country (for whom he also played at cricket). Nowadays in a 13-year international career, he might have 100 caps rather than 36. Why so few? "Matt [Busby] didn't always approve of us going off to play for Ireland, especially if it was a friendly and United had a midweek match. You might develop a twinge you never knew you had."

The Republic had various part-time managers - Cantwell did the job briefly when he was in charge at Coventry - yet the squad was chosen by a committee of Irish club officials. "They never came over here to watch people. They went on your record, or by cuttings, and judged whether you were better than some fella at home. We'd probably only have taken a couple of reserves to Paris. There were more FAI men than players."

Charlton, in tandem with Maurice Setters (whom Cantwell partnered at United and later bought for Coventry), has changed all that. Far from resenting the Anglo influence, or begrudging the comparatively pampered players of the past decade, Cantwell wishes he could have been part of the success. Tonight, as one of the team behind the team, he may well be.