Football: Irish fit to take on the world: Eamon Dunphy says Jack Charlton's squad are equal to their biggest test

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REGARDLESS of what happens against the Czechs at Lansdowne Road this afternoon, the Republic of Ireland will travel to the World Cup finals in better shape than any other competing nation. Since Niall Quinn's sad injury last autumn, which deprived Jack Charlton of an important attacking option, everything else has worked out more or less perfectly for the Irish manager.

History assures us that an ideal preparation is not essential to success in this tournament. Argentina in 1978, Italy in 1982, and even Brazilian teams subsequently deemed great, have all emerged from pre-tournament crises to claim the prize. But, when they go to sleep at night, Charlton's contemporaries in international football must fantasise about the resources he uniquely possesses, and the fund of national goodwill upon which he and his players can currently draw.

After Ireland's fraught final qualifying match in Belfast, Charlton claimed his squad needed new blood. That wish has been granted in such spectacular fashion that the problem now concerns which gifted young player to leave on the bench. The hope that other key players would remain free of injury has also been fulfilled. After a long, hard English season, the only remaining, minor doubt concerns Paul McGrath.

I have never subscribed to the widely held view that Jack Charlton is exceptionally lucky (except for the occasion, in 1974, when England refused to reply to his application for a job). However, one must acknowledge that fortune has smiled on the Irish through the winter and spring, and even Niall Quinn's absence has been turned to advantage.

Forced to reassess his tactical options in the wake of Quinn's misfortune, Charlton discovered an alternative to the familiar 4-4-2 shape, an alternative much better suited to the World Cup challenge, and the players in his squad.

Ireland's three pre-tournament games against Holland, Bolivia and Germany have provided dramatic evidence that, playing with a five-man midfield and a lone striker, they are much more flexible and potent in attack and more secure in defence. Most encouragingly, the old long-ball option, which so often in the past rendered the talents of Ireland's better players redundant, seems to have been sidelined along with Quinn. No target, no long- range missiles. Good.

When he departs from Dublin airport bound for Ireland's World Cup training camp in Orlando tomorrow, Charlton will take with him a squad of fit, gifted, hungry footballers. In terms of talent and tactical options, he is immeasurably better off than when departing for Italy four years ago. Ireland reached the quarter- finals in 1990, this time they should do better. A caveat to that assessment must allow for the possibility that the prevailing climate in the United States will present all European teams with an impossible task.

But the crucial humidity factor aside, there should be no doubt about Ireland's ability to win the World Cup. The fact that they are infinitely stronger than four years ago is but one source of optimism. Other comparisons beckon encouragingly. In 1990, England reached the semi-final, losing to the eventual champions, West Germany, on penalties, with an unsettled side which would not be considered the equal of the present Irish team.

England, as always, expect it. Ireland were happy to settle for gallant participation. This time, the Irish should be looking for something more than decent survival.

The opposition is, everywhere, in crisis. The Dutch continue to fight each other. Ruud Gullit's walk-out last week, and the desperate attempt to persuade Marco van Basten to join the squad, suggest that even if they were good enough, which they are not, Holland would squabble their way to oblivion.

The Italians looked awful against Switzerland on Friday night. They depend on Roberto Baggio to steal goals, something he never looks like doing in the matches that really matter. Arrigo Sacchi, Italy's coach, is a troubled man. With good reason. Italian morale, fragile at best, is low. Strong in defence, Italy seem hopelessly unfocussed going forward. Sensing crisis, the Roman crowd booed and jeered their farewells on Friday night. The rotten tomatoes are on order for the return from America.

The Germans looked equally unconvincing against Ireland in Hanover last Sunday. Essentially the same team that won in 1990, that is precisely Bertie Vogts's problem. Lothar Matthaus, the midfield orchestrator of yesterday, now operates much less incisively as a roving libero. Matthaus, at 33, is nothing like the player he was before rupturing his knee ligaments two years ago. Up front, Klinsmann and Voller are ageing fast, the absence of vitality impossible to conceal.

Brazil deserve to be favourites; the climate won't worry them, but theirs, too, is a deeply troubled camp, coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, a technocrat with attitude, being the focus of his players' anger, in some cases contempt. Parreira's efforts to impose discipline on his brilliant improvisers is resented by them and Brazilian fans. This coach is, however, a determined man. Persisting with his principles, he has, ludicrously, designated that Romario, Bebeto and Muller, his three strikers, will sit together on the aircraft taking Brazil to the Finals. Romario, for one, has told his coach to get lost.

Wherever you gaze in search of potential champions, you can only identify trauma. The Irish are the exception.

Charlton has, understandably, preached caution. It is possible to get carried away, thus burdening the team with undue pressure. But in this respect, as in all others, Charlton can be reassured: the bond between his team and the nation is strong enough to withstand the worst imaginable outcome of the challenge ahead.

Their talent apart, the Irish squad is blessed by the evidently powerful morale which flows soothingly through the camp. Hard-headed football analysis, not exactly a popular share in Ireland these past few years, proposes that World Cup destiny will be determined by Charlton's ability to loosen up, think clearly and exploit to the maximum a glorious opportunity to leave a mark on the international game.

Between now and the opening match against Italy, Charlton faces critical decisions that would give any manager a headache. First, he must decide who plays in goal. This is a desperately tough call, which this observer, for one, would not wish to make.

Packie Bonner is not the imposing character of old. In the qualifying series, there were recurring signs of fallibility. But there were also moments, especially in Copenhagen, when Bonner's experience and inspiration served Ireland magnificently. The alternative, Alan Kelly, made some vital saves in Hanover last Sunday, one or two of whichmight have been beyond Bonner. Because of this kind of speculation, Bonner will be under severe pressure if he is selected. Unfortunately, this is inevitable.

The problem facing Charlton is that, if he has erred, the mistake was made when he declined to blood Kelly in the less demanding qualifying games. A decision deferred now returns to pose the most serious doubt about the coming weeks.

Another major decision concerns a partner for Paul McGrath in the centre of defence. Again, Charlton has made a rod for his own back, aggressively promoting the cause of Alan Kernaghan before the evidence to support it was on the table. As recently as last week, what looked like leaks to the fans-with-typewriters indicated that Kernaghan may be preferred to Kevin Moran and Phil Babb. That would be unforgiveable folly.

All the other decisions about the composition of the starting team are, happily, free of the possibility of self-

inflicted injury. Despite the extraordinary emergence of Gary Kelly to challenge for a full- back place, the claims of Denis Irwin and Terry Phelan are surely beyond dispute.

The case John Sheridan has made in recent games for his inclusion in the five-man midfield will be a sterner test of Charlton's judgement. Sheridan offers poise, and is able to create and score goals. Can he do it when it counts, or is Sheridan at his best in rehearsal?

The alternative is Ronnie Whelan, a proven competitor, with campaign medals to boost his claim. Whelan also enables Charlton to field a good defender in front of the back four, which is critical if Roy Keane and Andy Townsend are to enjoy the freedom to make penetrating forward runs.

The identity of the lone striker in the system that now seems certain to be deployed has yet to be decided. Both the candidates have presented impressive credentials in recent weeks. Tony Cascarino or Tommy Coyne? Whither John Aldridge? And what about Ray Houghton, a distinguished veteran still as hungry as his young challenger, Jason McAteer?

Yes, indeed, an embarrassment of riches with which Ireland will travel to USA '94 more hopefully than most.

Jack Charlton's heroic status as cultural icon cannot now be challenged. His legend is secure. Those more interested in football than folklore will be more rigorous in their judgement. For many Irish football men, cowed though by the clamour from the streets, doubt remains about Charlton's ability to manage wisely when the heat is on. This jury is still out, but eager to return a positive verdict. He earns enough to take that kind of pressure.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (Friendly v Czech Republic, Lansdowne Road, today): Bonner (Celtic); G Kelly (Leeds), McGrath (Aston Villa), Kernaghan, Phelan (both Manchester City), McGoldrick (Arsenal), Sheridan (Sheffield Wednesday), Townsend (Aston Villa), Staunton (Aston Villa), Cascarino (Chelsea), Aldridge (Tranmere Rovers).

(Photograph omitted)