Football: Defensive fillip for McCarthy mission

KENNY CUNNINGHAM, the Wimbledon defender, is on the mend and hopeful of taking his place in the Republic of Ireland side for Saturday's European Championship play-off first leg with Turkey at Lansdowne Road.

Cunningham suffered a hamstring injury in Sunday's 2-0 victory over Leeds at Selhurst Park, but the Republic's manager, Mick McCarthy, is confident the defender will be able to earn his 28th cap. "Kenny, although he didn't train today with the squad in Dublin, is much improved. I am optimistic about his chances because he very much wants to play in this game," McCarthy said.

"Apart from the times he was injured, he has always been in my teams and, of course, has captained Ireland on a number of occasions. I've never left him out of the starting line-up. But should he miss out I will not be worried about including Phil Babb even though he has not played a first team game for Liverpool this season."

The Leeds defender Ian Harte seems certain to play having almost fully recovered from a back injury. And the veteran Manchester United full-back, Denis Irwin, is expected to link up with the squad today after receiving treatment on a ligament injury at Old Trafford.

That is a boost for the Irish manager after the withdrawal of Mark Kennedy, Steve Staunton, Gary Kelly and Matt Holland because of injuries.

The Blackburn pair Jason McAteer and Jeff Kenna, both late call-ups, joined the squad yesterday and the Middlesbrough defender Curtis Fleming broke a four-day holiday with his club in Malaga and will arrive in Dublin today.

The veteran striker Tony Cascarino was due to play for his French club, Nancy, last night for 45 minutes, confident that he has recovered from a knee injury, and is scheduled to join the squad tomorrow.

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