Football: Ireland's dream is over

World Cup play-offs: McCarthy's men so close to glory as old guard rise to occasion one last time; Belgium 2 Oliveira 25, Nilis 68 Ireland 1 Houghton 58 Attendance: 35,320 Belgium win 3-2 on aggregate
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The Irish did a lap of honour before the kick-off; the Belgians kept the more telling celebrations until later. As three-quarters of the old Heysel Stadium disappeared in a flurry of red flags which marked Belgium's remarkable sequence of qualification for World Cup finals, the Irish team departed, bedraggled and desolate. For such stalwarts of success as Ray Houghton, Tony Cascarino and Andy Townsend, this will surely be their last poignant sight of a competition they have graced so romantically for so long.

Houghton, whose second-half goal just minutes after he had replaced Alan McLoughlin had once again brought glimpses of a summer in France, could hardly bring himself to acknowledge the host of green and orange flags which still flew long after the final whistle, not least in honour of the victors. So it will be Belgium going to the World Cup finals for the fifth time, not Ireland for the third. And it will not just be the Irish travel agents who will lead the mourning. France itself will be the poorer for the absence of everyone's favourite underdog. "There is a sense of sorrow because we've lost," Mick McCarthy, the Irish manager, said. "There is also a sense of pride because of the way we've played and a sense of hope for the future." Decent sentiments, but it did not help the Irish cause that a throw-in before the winning goal was called mistakenly. "That could have cost us a place in the World Cup finals," McCarthy added.

In truth, this was just a step too far for a team still in transition from the epic days of Jack Charlton. In a few days when the sorrow has worn off, McCarthy will take solace from the maturity of some of his younger players who so nearly carried the day.

Ireland can look forward to the European Championships with hope; France was just a year or two too early. Yet had they showed the imagination and urgency in Dublin in the first leg, perhaps they and not Belgium would be anticipating the handsome rewards which stem from qualification. But a goal in each half, by Luis Oliveira and Luc Nilis, sealed the Irishmen's fate, hard though they battled to snatch belated glory. The sending off of David Connolly just eight minutes after he had come on for Mark Kennedy, for kicking out at Gert Verheyen, was the one sour note of a tumultuous night .

With Kennedy and Gary Kelly taking every opportunity to push forward down the flanks in support of Cascarino, the Irish looked more dangerous in the first quarter last night than they had for the whole 90 minutes in Dublin. A low cross by Kelly was hurriedly deflected away from Kennedy's late run to the far post. Townsend, who had called for 11 captains before the match, began to play like the real one in midfield. But just as the home supporters began to fall silent at the ineptitude of their own team, Oliveira struck.

In the 25th minute, a promising Irish move was ended by McLoughlin's misplaced pass. Gert Claesens, playing in place of the injured Marc Wilmots, fed a beautifully weighted ball into the space behind the Irish defence and the Brazilian-born Belgian striker just flicked the ball away from the advancing Shay Given to give Belgium a precious lead.

As McCarthy no doubt pointed out at half-time, the equation was still much the same for the Irish, and with Cascarino beginning to dominate in the air, there were distinct signs of hope for the Irish hordes, whose flags covered the running track behind one of the goals. Cascarino, indeed, should have equalised just before half-time when a neat build-up down the right by Ireland ended with Cascarino miscueing Jeff Kenna's low cross straight at Filip De Wilde.

On the stroke of half-time, Lee Carsley brought down Oliveira on the edge of the area, Nilis territory. A goal then would surely have sealed Ireland's fate, but the PSV striker clipped his free-kick inches over Given's bar. And survival turned to joy 13 minutes into the second half through an unlikely source. Brought off the bench after 50 minutes, Houghton had already added a sense of business to the Irish midfield when he sneaked unnoticed into the Belgian penalty area to meet Townsend's cleverly weighted cross from the byline. With De Wilde retrieving his position back across the goal, Houghton cleverly looped his header in the opposite direction beyong the goalkeeper's despairing dive, bringing back memories of his winning goal against England in the European championships nine years before. A collector's item for sure.

Having done the hard work, the inexperience which McCarthy feared began to show. Instead of consolidating their position, the Irish fell back under persistent Belgian pressure. A controversial throw-in was cleared to Claesens, whose clever overhead flick found Nilis clear behind the Irish defence. For the third time in as many games, Given had little chance with the low shot. Desperately, the Irish drove forward through the rain and the Flemish mud. But this time there was to be no miracle.

Qualifiers for France

France, Brazil, England, Germany, Scotland, Austria, Denmark, Holland, Bulgaria, Norway, Romania, Spain, Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia, South Africa, Cameroon, Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, South Korea, Saudia Arabia, United States, Mexico, Yugoslavia, Croatia, Belgium, Italy, one from Chile/Peru/Ecuador, one from Jamaica/El Salvador, two from Japan/Iran/Australia.

Three of the four remaining non-European places will be decided today.