Football: Home costs for Republic

Stephen Brenkley says missed chances give Mick McCarthy's side an unenviable task
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The Independent Online
When Jack Charlton was manager, the Republic of Ireland made a point of winning home matches in World Cup qualifying tournaments. Whether it was luck, or guile, or judgement, or more likely a combination of the lot, Charlton's sides gained maximum points on eight out of ten occasions when it mattered in Dublin.

Under Mick McCarthy, as they attempt to reach the finals for the third consecutive occasion, Ireland have won attractively twice but, crucially, have been held to two goalless draws. The first, against Iceland last November, was bitterly disappointing, the second, on Wednesday against Lithuania, may prove terminal to their chances of being in France next summer.

"As I've said before in this campaign, it is the points which remain to be won rather than those already lost which concern me most," said McCarthy in a neat piece of manager-speak afterwards. "Goals colour everything in football and had any of the scoring attempts gone in instead of being stopped or scraping the woodwork I imagine the mood of many of our supporters would be one of high glee."

By most conservative observations, Ireland created, but failed to convert, 12 transparent scoring opportunities as Lithuania absorbed the usual punishment. Not once did they surrender the cause and in the last minute Ray Houghton, hero of many an Irish hour, contrived to stab a shot wide when accuracy might have been easier.

"I'm actually not too disappointed but I should have done better," said Houghton, one of four players there on Wednesday who were with Big Jack in the two previous campaigns. "I had three good chances, the keeper made a good save but with the others it just seemed that I had to get them on target and it was terrible to see them go not even one inch past the post."

Charlton was always likely to be a hard act to follow and McCarthy, largely sticking with tried and trusted personnel, has been generally convincing. Still, it was difficult to avoid the feeling that his predecessor would have conjured a goal from somewhere.

In the old days it might have come from Tony Cascarino, one of the legion of players whose Irish roots were traced by Charlton and his cohorts. But Cascarino, now with the French second division side Nancy, was also lacking the necessary in the final 30 minutes when he went on as substitute.

"It was disappointing to have created so much and still have got nothing; but we've got to put that behind us and concentrate on making sure that, from now on, things go our way." The trouble for Cascarino and some of his colleagues is that the phrase "from now on" can hardly embrace much longer into the future.

The surviving quartet from Charlton's epic era is Houghton, 35, Cascarino, who will be 35 next week, Andy Townsend, 34, and Steve Staunton, 28. While Houghton, who went to Reading in the close season, performed admirably and Cascarino may still be able to fill a bit-part as a striking substitute, Townsend's international career seems to be approaching its end.

McCarthy has two weeks to decide if his veterans are the players to take him to France. The Republic have two away games in four days next month, against Iceland and Lithuania, the teams who have deprived them at Lansdowne Road. They must win both to make their final match against Romania in October of much significance.

If they do so, the runners-up berth in Group Nine and a spot in the play- offs beckons. But those two matches, let alone France 98, may surely be a step too much for Big Jack's old boys.